Florestan Fernandes – IX

Image_Stela Maris Grespan

By Roberto Massei*

Florestan Fernandes will inspire many of us to carry out his dream and all those who still haven't lost hope in a better world: a socialist, just and fraternal society

To Professor Paulo Alves
in memory

[…] It is not within my power to create a society ideal. However, it is within my power to describe what, in existing society, is not ideal for any kind of human existence in society. […]
The Bourgeois Revolution in Brazil, 1976, p. 10; author's emphasis.

The 22nd of July marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Florestan Fernandes. His death took place on August 10, 1995. Two contradictory moments, as they mark the beginning and end of the life of one of the most important thinkers in Brazil and the world. It's been 25 years without his presence. This article intends to make a brief presentation of Florestan's work. Then resume comments on The Bourgeois Revolution in Brazil and its importance for understanding the development of capitalism in the country. Finally, a few words about this period after his death.

Despite these 25 years, Florestan is still present in the memory of all those who read him, voted for him and kept in touch with him. He was always very affable, yet determined, rigorous, firm and consistent in his principles. On the occasion of his death, I wrote and published an article about that very sad moment. Since then, we have gone through many transformations; some of them, especially the more recent and painful ones, will leave profound consequences on the life of the country.

Florestan Fernandes was a militant intellectual, a rare sight in this world. He influenced many of us who were active in social movements in the 1990s. During the period that I most closely followed his writings – books, newspaper articles and texts published as a deputy – he was relentless in defending socialism and Marxism. The first as a possible and alternative utopia for those “from below”; the second, as a fundamental instrument for the analysis of reality and its transformation.

At no time did he renounce the theoretical support of much of his work as a sociologist, as many did, especially in the Human Sciences. I had contact with his work for the first time in 1986 and I cannot forget the Florestan Fernandes Study Day, held in May of that year in Marília, organized by UNESP (it resulted The Militant Knowledge: essays on Florestan Fernandes, organized by Maria Ângela D`Incao. RJ: Peace and Land; SP: EDUNESP, 1987) His speech on the first day and the announcement that he would be a candidate for Federal Deputy for the Workers' Party are memorable. He was elected with over 50 votes.

According to Octavio Ianni, who was one of his main students – and also a former assistant –, Fernandes' work is peculiar in several of its aspects. Florestan is one of the interpreters of Brazil, alongside Caio Prado Jr, Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, Gilberto Freyre, Celso Furtado – who would also be 100 years old in 2020 – and other authors who sought to understand the country in its various interfaces. The questions posed by Florestan Fernandes, “his research and his approaches will be born from a clear political perspective to embody what [he himself] will call 'critical and militant sociology'”. (SEREZA, 2014, p. 229) This characteristic would allow “important marginalized sectors of society” to find “in the process of production and dissemination of his work a tool for questioning and interpreting in Brazilian class society.” (Idem)

According to Ianni, “the set of monographs and essays, books and articles, courses and conferences, campaigns and debates […] reveal a vigorous, new work, with a wide influence on teaching and research, on the interpretations and controversies that spread across by Brazilian thought. […]” (IANNI, 1986, p. 15). Ianni, here, does not include Florestan's interventions during the Constituent Assembly and deputy mandates. This essay was written before his election in 1986. As an MP, he increased his presence in public debate. At this point, we could say that his contribution turned to two fronts: politics (largely partisan, inside and outside the Workers' Party; he was already critical of some of the party's conduct at that time) and education. His mandates were fruitful of ideas and actions aimed at public education, from basic to higher education.

Regarding the role of intelligence, Octavio Ianni is clear:

“[…] it's not enough to put the problem in terms of 'neutrality' or 'engagement'. […] What is at stake is recognizing that the conditions under which knowledge is processed include the way in which society absorbs, selects, criticizes or rejects the product of intellectual activity. [The] movements of society, through its groups and classes [...] are always present in the way in which they are thought, are thinking themselves. [It is] the movement of history that often decant into theory”. (IANNI, 1986, p. 31)

Like it or not, all the action of an intellectual is found or stems from his relationship with society at its various levels and classes and how he is linked to it. Therefore, it is not and cannot be neutral – and never will be! The intellectual always speaks from a place, often facing a group, with a purpose.

For Octavio Ianni,

“[…] the work of Florestan Fernandes is contemporary with his time, in the sense that it expresses these two dimensions in a clear and developed way: he responds to the challenges of the present and reinterprets the past, revealing other links between the two. […] It unfolds […] throughout the populist republic, the military dictatorship and the New Republic of the eighties [of the last century].” (1986, p. 39)

And it advances to the mid-1990s, when he died unexpectedly. During this period, Florestan expressed himself in his work as a parliamentarian, in his public interventions as a columnist, especially in the Folha de São Paulo, and as a staunch defender of socialism.

In an article republished by the website the earth is round, Emília Viotti da Costa highlights the importance and uniqueness of Florestan Fernandes. For the historian,

“[…] the intellectuals who were able to satisfactorily resolve the dilemma between intellectual work and militancy 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. […]”. (COSTA, 2020)

Emília Viotti, author of several works still highly respected in Brazilian historiography, praises Florestan’s coherence and combativeness: “How to reconcile academic rigor and political militancy is an issue that has tormented, if not paralyzed, many intellectuals of our time.” (Idem) There were few intellectuals who, like him, satisfied the contradictory demands of these two types of involvement, concludes Costa in the same article.

His trajectory, however, received some criticism, which should be heard. They do not always appear, especially in the studies and comments made about his work. Florestan Fernandes was a Trotskyist in his youth and was active in the movement for nearly a decade. He was linked to the Socialist Revolutionary Party. He would have left this militancy for subjective reasons, according to Oswaldo Coggiola, to pursue an academic career. But also for objective reasons. According to this author, the classist and revolutionary political struggle will only be possible if it manages to configure a vanguard, “[...] capable of anticipating its time, based on the real conditions of that time, through a program, a policy and a organization." [COGGIOLA, 2020) For Coggiola, “Florestan militated in this direction, his effort stood out for his exceptional talent, but he was not exempt from contradictions, which he, in essence, knew, and against which he fought. That was the meaning of his political engagement right up to the end.” (Idem)

Bernardo Ricupero, who has studied the works of some interpreters from Brazil, in a chapter published in the book about the 20th anniversary of Florestan's death, points out that his reading of capitalism in Brazil brings him closer to Caio Prado Jr: “In broad terms, the Florestan Fernandes’ interpretation of Brazil […] underscores the country’s connection with a larger picture, in which the development of capitalism as a world system is the main data.” (RICUPERO, 2015, p. 50) We must therefore consider the uniqueness of the development of capitalism in Brazil. Although still attached to a strictly economic outlook and linked to a lesser extent to the theses of the Third International, this position cost Prado Jr dearly, who was boycotted and considered a traitor by the PCB, whose interpretation of the economic formation of Brazil was quite rigid. Never Caio Prado Jr. was pardoned for his heresy.

Bernardo Ricupero is emphatic when analyzing this characteristic, seen with restriction in the analysis of the colonization and independence process:

“In addition to Marxism, the interpretation of Caio Prado Jr. it also clashed with most of the analyzes made about Brazil at the time, which paid special attention to the internal characteristics of society. In this reference, it was not uncommon to equate the alleged self-sufficiency of the latifundia with feudalism. Going further, The bourgeois revolution in Brazil he goes so far as to consider that although the country does not have 'the whole of Europe's past […] we reproduce its recent past in a peculiar way, as this was part of the very process of implantation and development of western colonization in Brazil'”. (Florestan FERNANDES. Quoted in RICUPERO, 2015, p. 50).

Considering this perspective, “the bourgeois revolution in Brazil was of special interest, since being relatively advanced would allow us to understand how it would take place, in general terms, in other countries of dependent and underdeveloped capitalism. That is, our bourgeois revolution would be both peculiar to the country and typical of what happens in the peripheral situation.” (RICUPERO, p. 50-51)

According to Ricupero,

“The periphery of capitalism would have structural and dynamic traits that would characterize the existence of a capitalist economy. However, differences would superimpose on these fundamental uniformities, making capitalist development dependent, underdeveloped and imperialized. It would be precisely these differences that would characterize the typical of bourgeois domination and capitalist transformation in the periphery”. (2015, p. 59)

On the one hand, writes Ricupero, returning to Florestan, there would be no definitive rupture with the past and it would reappear taking its place, that is, there would be no alteration in the capitalist order. In the opposite direction, “the bourgeois revolution would appear linked to changes resulting from the expansion of the capitalist market and the dynamism of the central economies.” (RICUPERO, 2015, p. 60)

Currently, interpretations of Brazil are not published, the totalizing narratives of history, as Sérgio Buarque, Celso Furtado and Caio Prado Jr., among others, did:

“It is not difficult to know the reasons for the almost disappearance of the genre: since The bourgeois revolution in Brazil came out in 1974, the professionalization and specialization of intellectual work continued to advance. Concomitant with them, the loss of space for themes such as class domination, imperialism and the bourgeois revolution, which Florestan Fernandes had already noticed [at that time], became even more accentuated”. (RICUPERO, 2015, p. 60)

Ricupero's conclusion in the essay published in 2015 allows us to relate the bourgeois revolution and what happened to the country, especially in these last decades: the presence, albeit hidden, of the bourgeois autocracy in our political-economic process. The quote is long but illuminating:

“[…] in the midst of democracy [bourgeois autocracy] is less perceived. The growing specialization of social sciences and, in particular, of Brazilian political science also contributes to this kind of clouding of vision. It is as if the regular holding of elections, the existence of an opposition, the normal functioning of Congress, etc. were factors that made the autocracy no longer exist or irrelevant. But just as important as the undeniable institutional progress of recent years is that, behind it, there subsists an entrenched bourgeois autocracy, democracy still being far from reaching Brazilian society. Thus, it is even probable that it is the bourgeois autocracy that, as Florestan Fernandes noticed, continues to provide the 'style' of the bourgeois revolution and even of democracy in Brazil”. (RICUPERO, 2015, p. 61)

Florestan understood that the bourgeois revolution was not a simple episode, but a historical phenomenon, which would not follow a single path. In other words, “it would be a dynamic process, which would occur according to the different choices made by human agents in the economic, social and political spheres. Therefore, it would fundamentally be a question of studying the specific 'style' that the bourgeois revolution assumed in Brazil”. (RICUPERO, 2015, p. 60) in order to have an understanding of how the productive structures were organized and delimited the spaces – or lack thereof – of action within society.

Following the lead left by this author, in an interview with Revista FAPESP Research, we can consider the actuality of Florestan in the presence of bourgeois autocracy, analyzed in The revolution…, whether in the military dictatorship or in the short and turbulent moments of democracy in Brazil: “From the concept of autocracy, he shows that the Brazilian bourgeois revolution, contrary to what was imagined to have happened in France, for example, did not break with paradigms of the past” (ORLANDI, 2020, p. 94). On the contrary, “the bourgeoisie aligned itself with the old leaders of the oligarchy and seized power to defend particularist interests. This model […] is in force in the country regardless of the political regime, be it a dictatorship or a democracy.” (Idem)

Florestan Fernandes was compulsorily retired in 1969 after the enactment of AI-5. He was arrested for three days and released. He then went into exile in Canada, where he worked as a full professor at the University of Toronto. According to the testimonies of friends and family about that time, Florestan was very uncomfortable and decided to return to Brazil in 1972. In Canada, he would have continued the work that resulted in the book about the bourgeois revolution in Brazil, published in 1974. This essay, we can conclude, it was a moment of great importance in the public debate around the development of capitalism in Brazil.

Florestan Fernandes was consistent with his political beliefs. He believed in the possibility of capitalist society being destroyed by a rupture wrought by the people, the “from below” as he called it. Today, the vast group made up of men and women who have lived through the hardships imposed by this increasingly aggressive capitalism in its way of exploiting work, removing its surplus value and expropriating all workers. Florestan Fernandes would certainly produce a refined reflection on the process he began to think about systematically in the 1960s and which would culminate in the publication of The Bourgeois Revolution in Brazil. Capitalism “never let us breathe”.

He defended, throughout his life, in his works and in his public interventions – including and above all as a Constituent Deputy –, a socialist political project, with broad popular participation. In it, education would play a key role. In short, he was not a corporatist intellectual, alienated and, at times, idiotized by the academy. He was a combative defender of fundamental causes for society: public education, equally public university, income redistribution, agrarian reform, among other things. Education should be pluralistic, of very good quality and culminate in the liberation of the individual.

Indeed, he accepted the challenge of fighting in the bourgeois space by definition, that is, in parliament, believing that this was an important procedure, but not totally effective in conquering rights for the poorest. He was elected federal deputy twice for the PT: in 1986 and 1990. He was one of the most active constituents in the defense of public funds for the Public School. In 1990, he had more than 180 votes in the Ourinhos region, an extremely significant vote if we take into account his name, practically unknown outside of university circles, and the region being a stronghold of conservatives and the birthplace of the UDR at that time. In the same way, when he was in Ourinhos, we could perceive the simplicity of the social scientist who was considered, by Eric Hobsbawm, one of the ten most important thinkers of the western world.

Florestan was an example of how the intellectual should position himself in front of the themes and problems imposed by capitalism. One cannot capitulate due to fads and think that the system is likely to be reformed in its internal structures, minimizing the hardships of those “from below” and reducing poverty through compensatory policies, exacerbated to the limit in these 25 years that have passed. passed after his death.

With the advent of Information Technology and the development of digital platforms, capitalism has become aggressive in exploiting the worker, leading him to almost absolute precariousness, poorly remunerated, not guaranteeing the minimum rights that ensure the survival of those who have no other means. nothing but its labor power. We end up in the precariat, a term used by Ruy Braga. When you are registered, you become a collaborator. Without registration, he becomes an entrepreneur. In times of a pandemic, this situation reached its peak and what is observed is a devastating scenario, in which the unemployed reach more than 13% of the population. The uberization of work – and of life – and the #BrequeDosApps movement give us an idea of ​​the state of things in Brazil.

Neoliberals believed, already in the late 1980s, that it was possible to incorporate a poor country into the center of capitalism by modernizing it, streamlining its production process and reducing the presence of the State to the indispensable minimum. Neoliberal economic policies at the beginning of this century – the beings who defend these actions reproduce on a large scale and contribute with their biased analyzes to the increase in misfortunes; they spread through the press, academia, digital platforms (the so-called [anti-]social networks, and so on) – exacerbated inequality in all countries of the world that underwent reforms in these last 40 years. The concentration of wealth, in turn, has increased dramatically over the past two and a half decades. They continue to think that implementing reforms – always reforms! – and modernizing production – a concept used in a completely uncritical way – will contribute to inserting marginalized sectors of the population into the economy. To a large extent, they are incorporated into the market in an uneven and anomalous way. (MARTINS, 2002, p. 32-45) One way or another, the market absorbs almost everything and everyone. The result is an unequal society.

This process of economic transformation, initiated at first explicitly in the Collor government, which had FHC as its continuator, would keep Brazil a subordinate country – the expression was always used by Florestan Fernandes – to the richest nations. It was attenuated, but not completely abandoned, in the Lula and Dilma governments – an interregnum of just over a decade – and its bias towards absolute destruction was wide open after the impeachment with clear coup intentions in 2016 and the assumption of Michel Temer. We have seen and felt in these last four years a brutal increase in poverty in Brazil. There were few who benefited from this exacerbated economic policy, especially from the late 1990s onwards.

Many of those who ruled us, and still rule, renounced what they wrote and strictly follow the underlying rules of capitalism and neoliberal doctrine, updated from time to time. Florestan Fernandes at no time capitulated and maintained his radicalism, which can be seen from the mid-1980s onwards and throughout his party-political and public militancy, when he occupied an important space in the pre-internet written press. Florestan's death opened up a huge gap, which was in fact unfillable. He was part of the minority that saw “economic globalization” in its still incipient form back in the 1990s with many caveats and problems. He was, finally, a scathing critic of this whole process.

In 1993, two years before her death, therefore, Emília Viotti da Costa wrote,

“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 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”. (2020)

Men pass away and their works remain, for good or ill. Florestan's books – and him as a human being, with his life story permeated by difficulties imposed by poverty in the first two decades of his existence – will continue to serve as a reference. They will help to understand the always peculiar reality of Brazil. His conduct will certainly inspire many of us to carry forward his dream and all those who still haven't lost hope in a better world: a socialist, just and fraternal society. Despite the moment we live and the difficulties we face on all sides, we can only resist, whatever way it may be.

* Roberto Massei he holds a PhD in Social History from PUC/SP, he is an Associate Professor in the History Course/CCHE/UENP – Campus Jacarezinho.


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