Florestan Fernandes – a humanist socialist

Image: Andrea Ch


Florestan was very aware of the changes in direction in his thinking, as his ideas were responses to the problems of his time.

Yesterday marked the 28th anniversary of Florestan Fernandes' departure. It's not easy to be fair to his work. Many interpretations of his sociological thinking seem to first assume what he said or should have said and then look for examples drawn from his texts that prove such self-supported “hypotheses”. This is an unfair way to proceed, which Florestan Fernandes himself did not recommend.

Born in the 22th century, on July 1920, 10, and having produced until the final moments of his death on August 1995, XNUMX, Florestan Fernandes' intellectual and political work unfolds in different themes, the result of his sociological research work , and assumes different theoretical and methodological contours, but always marked by coherence, consistency and original synthesis.

Florestan Fernandes was very aware of the changes in direction in his thinking, as his ideas were responses to the problems of his time. At the same time, we can see in his effort at sociological self-analysis a clear awareness of continuity and a guiding thread in his reflections. If there were ruptures in his thinking, the continuities are equally decisive, demonstrating that he was an author who rethought himself all the time.

In 1986, at a meeting held at the campus from UNESP in Marília, Barbara Freitag launches the thesis of the epistemological cut, dividing the trajectory of Florestan Fernandes between an academic-reformist first phase and a political-revolutionary second. The dividing line between the two stages was the compulsory retirement of Florestan Fernandes from the University of São Paulo (USP) in 1969. The business-military dictatorship punished him for his democratic resistance, preventing him from teaching at any other Brazilian university (Freitag, 1987).

The academic-reformist phase would be characterized by the use of the conceptual and methodological instruments of positivist and functionalist sociology in a liberal political horizon, based on the Mannheimian conception of the intellectual and of reform via experimental and democratic planning. The political-revolutionary phase would be marked by the use of Marxist categories such as mode of production, social formation and imperialism to interpret the historical and concrete conditions of dependent capitalism. Florestan Fernandes was now interested in the socialist revolution.

This excessive simplification does not do justice to the thesis of the epistemological cut, which seeks to relate Florestan Fernandes' epistemological positions with his political practice in the educational sphere in each of the two moments. However, the exposition captures the essence of his arguments. The thesis of the epistemological cut was later vulgarized as a distinction between an academic phase and a political one. In fact, it expresses two distinct modes of political action, one through reforms and the other through revolutionary socialism. Politics was not absent in the first phase.

The merit of the thesis of the epistemological cut is to point out that there were significant changes in the work of Florestan Fernandes. However, these changes cannot be interpreted as an epistemological break. The idea that Florestan Fernandes was ever a positivist would also be erroneous. If we compare Florestan Fernandes' theoretical sociology texts from the 1950s with those from the 1970s, we realize that he never felt that he was at odds with his previous methodological solutions.

a book like The sociological nature of sociology (Fernandes, 1980) reevaluates the theoretical limits of works such as Empirical foundations of sociological explanation (1959) General and applied sociology essays (1960) and Elements of theoretical sociology (1970), emphasizing that attempts at methodological synthesis of the classic and modern currents of the social sciences advanced there would not be possible in an antagonistic and irremediably fractured society such as the capitalist one. But at no point does Florestan claim that this synthesis effort would be useless and unnecessary.

Furthermore, in many theoretical-epistemological issues debated in the 1970s, such as the relationship between nature, society and history or the subdivisions of Sociology, Florestan Fernandes did not find himself in contradiction with the ideas he defended when he was immersed in academic work in the USP. Florestan Fernandes did not dogmatically assume a methodological perspective and thus defined himself. Making use of structural-functionalism does not make you a functionalist. At the same time, he was already elaborating his ideas about the subdivisions of sociology and he pointed out the importance of Karl Marx for the construction of a historical sociology.

If we want to fairly evaluate his academic production during this period, we must question how far he managed to advance in his efforts at synthesis and what limits he bequeathed to new generations, which would need to be overcome in a collective work. Likewise, the fact of having deepened and incorporated Karl Mannheim does not transform him into a miniature copy of the Hungarian sociologist in Brazilian lands. In a 1946 essay entitled “Politics as a science in Karl Mannheim”, Florestan Fernandes reveals that this assimilation was never uncritical, questioning Karl Mannheim's assumption according to which the European political and historical situation provided a social basis for the “synthesis of perspectives”. ” and the implementation of democratic planning.[1] A society divided into classes would not allow the realization of such a reformist project.

There is, in fact, a profound reorientation in Florestan Fernandes' thought between the late 1950s and the 70s, but not as an epistemological cut. This radical reorientation takes place in the midst of a more consistent re-elaboration of old theoretical-methodological conceptions in sociology. His vision of Brazil and Latin America becomes more historically concrete, apprehending the specificities of dependent capitalism and bourgeois autocracy on the periphery of the world system. But this rich sociological characterization was only made possible through an original synthesis effort for which Florestan Fernandes had already been practicing for over 25 years in his research.

The confrontation with conservative and reactionary forces in the Campaign in Defense of the Public School (1959-1962), the unveiling of the racist forms underlying dependent underdevelopment and the clashes against the “university reform” intended by the civil-military dictatorship (1967-1968) were some of the decisive historical events that made Florestan Fernandes abandon the idea that the Bourgeois Revolution still contained progressive potential. The transformations “within the order” are now seen as a permanent political process of deepening the “revolution against the order”. The historical times of the democratic and socialist revolutions illuminate each other.

Florestan Fernandes does not despise the “revolution within the order”, but links it to the socialist project of increasingly radical and profound transformations, advanced from “those below”. Incidentally, his reflections on the socialist movement and the revolutionary political party at the end of the 1970s take into account the need to incorporate the dispossessed masses and the working classes into a revolutionary horizon, into a historic act that launches into the future. It is at this moment that the humanist Florestan is fully revealed, but not that of an abstract humanism with a liberal approach, focused on the selfish individual, atomized and alienated in capitalist reifying relations.

There is an affinity between Florestan Fernandes and the critical Marxisms of Eastern Europe, active in the period of the Soviet Union, in this defense of a humanist socialism. The return to the “young Marx”, to the Marx of The Parisian Manuscripts of 1844, had the political and ideological sense of resisting the bureaucratic and authoritarian structures bequeathed by Stalinism as a comprehensive historical and cultural phenomenon. In the Brazilian case, the brutalization of human beings by capitalist, colonialist, racist and patriarchal relations made it urgent to recover the humanist legacy of Marxist revolutionary traditions. Florestan disagreed with the thesis of the epistemological break between the young and the old Marx, signaling the need to recover the humanist perspective of the critique of alienation in the ways of the socialist struggle.

No form of exploitation, domination and oppression would pass the critical scrutiny of humanist socialism unscathed. Specifically capitalist forms based on the extraction of relative surplus value, associated with absolute surplus value and the permanent recomposition of spoliative processes of primitive accumulation between centers and peripheries, of class exploitation, combine with colonialist, sexist and racist relations in the social division from work. The bourgeois state that emerges from such a historical panorama cultivates restricted democracy of the most equals as a way of life, co-opting the middle strata as a means of preventing radical transformations from the bottom up.

In the interview with Paulo de Tarso Venceslau, published on 20/01/1991, Florestan Fernandes defends the humanist tradition in Marxist thought. This humanism was understood as a multilateral development of personality and human potentialities in a community and self-management perspective of freely associated workers.

It is about overcoming individualist, bourgeois humanism, and all previous humanisms: “I am a socialist, therefore, I believe that we are going to build a socialist society, which will have to start with a democracy of the majority, reach equality with freedom and develop all the fundamental elements of the human personality. It is a socialism that defends a humanism – a synthesis, an overcoming of all other previous forms of humanism. (Fernandes, 1991).

Rescuing humanist socialism in Florestan Fernandes helps us to reinterpret aspects of his intellectual trajectory. Previous research on native peoples, racial discrimination in class society, education and the historical dilemmas of the periphery and dependent capitalism lead to a socialist militancy that takes a stand against any and all forms of oppression, against racism, colonialism and male domination, against the degradation of the socio-environmental environment and, finally, against everything that degrades us in the civilization of capitalist barbarism.

The perspective of human emancipation feeds Florestan Fernandes' sociological analyzes and prospectively guides the investigation of the present and past in the transformation of the future. This is the meaning of the rapprochement between socialism and sociology that Florestan cultivates, from the 1970s onwards, in his praxis revolutionary.

Finally, we can ask ourselves how the humanist socialist Florestan Fernandes, or in the happy expression of Heloísa Fernandes (2008), the sociologist-socialist who merges into a single person, starts to re-signify the set of all his previous theoretical production. If the criterion for judging an individual is his effective practice and not what he says about himself, Florestan Fernandes positioned himself at the height of his historical tasks and, like few others, was able to overcome the distance between word and action. Authenticity is the greatest feature of his thinking and way of being.

*Diogo Valença de Azevedo Costa Professor of Sociology at the Federal University of Recôncavo da Bahia (UFRB).


FERNANDES, F. Empirical foundations of sociological research. Sao Paulo: Companhia Editora Nacional, 1959.

______. General and applied sociology essays. São Paulo: Pioneer, 1960 (https://amzn.to/3YFx8Qq).

______. Elements of theoretical sociology. São Paulo: Companhia Editora Nacional, 1970 (https://amzn.to/44hwNVv).

______. The sociological nature of sociology. São Paulo: Ática, 1980 (https://amzn.to/3YwqPi4).

______. Florestan Fernandes, Theory and Debate, no. 13, Jan., 1991. Available at: https://teoriaedebate.org.br/1991/01/20/florestan-fernandes/.

Fernandes, Heloisa. Florestan Fernandes, a socialist sociologist. In: Fernandes, Florestan. Domination and inequality: The Latin American Social Dilemma (Anthology). Bogotá: Siglo del Hombre, CLACSO, 2008. p. 9-35 (https://amzn.to/3KFl7on).

FREITAG, B. Democratization, university, revolution. In: d'Incao, MA (org.). the militant knowledge: essays on Florestan Fernandes. Rio de Janeiro/ São Paulo: Paz e Terra/ Unesp, 1987. p. 163-180 (https://amzn.to/47yhACq).


[1] The essay can be consulted in Fernandes (1970)

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