Florestan Fernandes Marxist

Image: Jan van der Zee


His theoretical and practical firmness is a true demonstration of the vitality of Marxist thought.

It is significant and opportune that tribute be paid to Florestan Fernandes within the framework of a symposium dedicated to celebrating the centenary of the death of Frederico Engels,[I] for Florestan was a convinced, though not dogmatic, Marxist. Even because he arrived at Marxism in the course of a complex intellectual process, which he did not annul, but incorporated other theoretical lines.

Suffice it to say that while studying Marx's work, in the 1940s, he guided his investigation by the principles of French sociological positivism and Anglo-American functionalism. At that time, he on the one hand translated and gave a solid introduction to Criticism of Political Economy, by Karl Marx; on the other hand, he used the theoretical arsenal of functionalism to unravel the social organization of the Tupinambá. In addition, he was a militant in the Trotskyist group led by Herminio Sacchetta, which in 1945 tried to form a broad front called the Radical Democratic Coalition, which did not work out, but to which the young Florestan dedicated a lot of effort for a while.

Given this, one might ask: was he an eclectic? No. First, notice that I am describing the initial phase of a formation that has not yet fully matured. Secondly, because looking at things today, one realizes that, as a socialist, he was exploring theoretical lines in a parallel way, so to speak, eventually extracting a coherent and flexible vision from their interaction. Thus, after a certain number of years, his theoretical parallelism reached what could be called an enriched Marxism, which was his personal formula. Marx also explored different lines, sometimes potentially conflicting, such as liberal economics, including Ricardo's theory, French democratic radicalism, German philosophical materialism, and he was not for that reason eclectic.

Florestan Fernandes can, therefore, be considered a Marxist with a slow and composite formation, but a very personal one. His great achievement in this regard was to harmoniously fuse the rigor of academic sociology with the political perspective. When it came to this, the mature Florestan Fernandes was ready, the Florestan Fernandes who instituted a new type of sociology in Brazil, transforming neutral scientific sociology into participatory sociology, without losing any of his methodological rigor and objectivity in research. I believe that he was the first and still the greatest practitioner in Brazil of this type of sociological science, which is at the same time an arsenal of praxis, making knowledge slide towards the critique of society and the theory of its transformation.

This made him feel the need for a logical outcome, that is, political activism itself, which he had practiced in his youth, then put aside and finally resumed in 1985, when he joined the Workers' Party and became a supported politician. intellectually due to its strong theoretical basis and translating its thinking at a collective level through journalistic activity. It was then that he channeled his prodigious culture and intellectual experience into reflection on everyday life, making the socialist point of view on the problems of the moment accessible to hundreds of thousands of people.

His trajectory was complete, as praxis emerged purified from the sociological and philosophical pharmacy that he had set up with a great capacity for synthesis, but a transfiguring synthesis. Having started with the difficult writing for specialists, typical of university activity, it ended up in dense and clear journalism, made to enlighten the greatest possible number of readers, completing the steps that define a very fruitful type of socialist thinker.

It is important to point out that the consolidation of his theoretical position, during the 1960s, gave greater coherence to his political action. From a young age he was committed to socialism, but after he left the military in the small Trotskyist group I referred to, he was above all a solitary militant. sui generis, with no party connection, although, as I once said, being a party in itself, as seen in his fight for public schools, in the unfolding of his studies on racial prejudice, in the fight for educational reform at all levels, in the radical analysis of the structure and behavior of classes.

Within the limits of my lack of competence in the matter, I think I can say that Florestan Fernandes, who became consolidated from the 1950s onwards, was in his own way a true Marxist. He was never interested in casting his works in orthodox terminology, nor in forcing reality to justify theories and slogans. He moved within Marxism, not just with freedom, but with a consistency and fidelity that withstood all the vicissitudes through which the legacy of Marx and Engels is passing in our days.

In my youth I read a German pamphlet called Why do Marxists renege? Now, Florestan Fernandes was one of those who never reneged, and his theoretical and practical firmness is a true demonstration of the vitality of Marxist thought, the object of so much hesitation and so much desertion at the present time. That coherence, that fidelity, corresponds to the rare integrity that characterized him and even allowed him not to be afraid of being out of fashion.

They manifested themselves in their behavior in any sector, and so I want to end by saying that they manifested themselves exceptionally in friendship. Therefore, still in this aspect, it is opportune to honor him on the centenary of the death of Frederick Engels, that is, of a man who knew how to be one of the greatest friends recorded in history.

*Antonio Candido (1918-2017) was Professor Emeritus at the Faculty of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences at USP. Author, among other books, of Literature and society (Gold on Blue).

Published in the booklet Remembering Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, 1996, ed. from the author.


[I] The article was read in tribute to Florestan Fernandes, on the occasion of the Seminar on the 100th anniversary of the death of Friedrich Engels, held at USP on November 10, 1995.

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