Jose Revueltas

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By VICTOR MANUEL RAMOS LEMUS*

Entry from the “Dictionary of Marxism in America”

Life and political praxis

José Maximiliano Revueltas Sánchez (1914-1976) was born in the state of Durango, in Northwest Mexico. He moved to Mexico City in 1920, at the age of six, and was enrolled in German school, the same one that had been frequented by his older brothers. However, with his father's death in 1923, economic problems affected the family, which forced him to abandon this elite school and transfer to public education, in addition to being forced to work from an early age to support the family budget. .

He was a member of a family of twelve brothers, three of whom distinguished themselves in the cultural sphere: Silvestre Revueltas (prominent musician and orchestra director); Fermín Revueltas (who with Diego Rivera, Siqueiros, Orozco and others was part of the first generation of post-revolutionary muralism); and Rosaura Revueltas (dancer and actress, protagonist of among others the salt of the earth, a 1954 film that stood out for its social criticism).

Although José Revueltas himself stated that the impulse for his political activism came from the contact he had, as a boy, with the reality of the poor neighborhoods close to his private German school (where he saw unpaved streets, open sewers and thin children ), the influence of his brothers Silvestre and Fermín, fervent activists of the Communist Party of Mexico (PCM), was also decisive in this journey: Silvestre became president of the League of Revolutionary Writers and Artists in 1936; and Fermín was an active militant of the Union of Technical Workers, Painters, Sculptors of Mexico (SOTPE).

According to José, he explored the streets of the popular market in The mercy, in the center of the Mexican capital (where his family had a grocery store), who established contact with various figures from the poor and marginalized sectors of Mexican society, such as healers, loan sharks, pimps, prostitutes and scoundrels. This experience contributed to sharpening his critical sense in the face of a country that, despite emerging from a period of revolutionary armed struggle, still maintained the structures of economic and political inequality that historically characterized it.

At the age of 13, he left school and became self-taught. Shortly afterwards, he started working in a hardware store, where he became friends with Manuel Rodríguez, a boy nicknamed “Trotsky” because he read a lot about the Russian revolutionary and organized, at the end of the day, discussions about socialism with his colleagues at the establishment. . It was thanks to him that José Revueltas had his first contact with many of the authors and themes linked to Marxism.

In November 1929, he was arrested in an act by the PCM – declared illegal that year –, an organization in which he only participated as a sympathizer. He was in jail for six months. It was there that, in the hours he had to read, he intensely studied Marxist thought, to which he adhered. Shortly after his release in 1930, he officially joined the party.

During those years, the transition from the first to the second generation of Marxism was taking place in Mexico, and the postulates of the Third International, embraced by the hard core of the PCM, began to be questioned by some of its militants, as was the case of José Revueltas . If, during the first stage, the PCM's radius of influence extended especially to unions and workers' organizations (such as that of artists), in the second, the “class against class” policy was questioned – after all, such a strategy had already led to the rupture between communists and social democrats in Europe.

In its place, the party would adopt a policy of broad unity that was known internationally as the “Popular Front”. It must be said that the critical stance maintained by José Revueltas towards the PCM and the Soviet Union (USSR) never affected his loyalty to Marxism, which allows us to understand that, for him, there was a difference between militancy and ideology.

On two occasions, in 1932 and 1934, he was arrested and sent to the Marias Islands, a maximum security prison located in the Pacific Ocean. The first time he had participated in a demonstration, and the second time he was involved in a strike by agricultural workers in the state of Nuevo León. From these experiences, almost a decade later, came his novel The walls of water (1941), whose plot deals with five young communists deported to this prison; Relating the situation between political prisoners and ordinary prisoners, the work reports the violations of human rights and the degradation to which they are all subjected.

In July 1935, he was sent by the PCM as a delegate to the VI International Congress of Communist Youth and the VII Congress of the Communist International (IC), in which he participated together with Vicente Lombardo Toledano, the main Mexican Marxist intellectual of the time.

However, in 1943, José Revueltas was expelled from the PCM, accused of maintaining “divisionist” activities, along with other members of the José Carlos Mariátegui cell – which he had founded in honor of the renowned Peruvian Marxist. His expulsion was one of the results of the long crisis that the party went through, motivated by differences regarding resolutions taken at the VII Congress, eight years earlier; His cell then harshly criticized the PCM leadership – which, in turn, responded by accusing it of being a “liquidationist” (that is, of wanting to end the party). That same year, after a long time of political activism and several works in journalism (including on police pages), he published the novel Human mourning.

In 1944, without a party, José Revueltas participated in the creation of the insurgent, a Marxist group independent of the PCM. From that moment on, he also began his work as a screenwriter and playwright.

In 1948, he joined the Popular Party (PP), recently founded by Toledano. The following year he published The earthly days, a text that gained prominence in Mexican literature, also generating controversy among PCM activists. Claiming to be “armed” with his own “lived experience”, the author responded to critics that, in the work, his intention was to reflect on “the life, concerns, contradictions and struggles of Mexican communists during the period of clandestinity.”

In 1950, he took his drama to the stage The quadrant of loneliness (written in 1945), whose reception was negative in socialist sectors. Pablo Neruda, for example, criticized him for not following the postulates of committed literature and for having succumbed to “the most reactionary philosophy of the bourgeoisie: existentialism”. Faced with this situation, José Revueltas withdrew both the play and the novel from circulation, and carried out – as was customary at the time – a severe self-criticism regarding his writings; about romance The earthly days, stated that it was an “inconvenient, inadequate and demoralizing” text.

From that moment on, he dedicated himself to writing plays and scripts for cinema – activities that assured him a prominent place within Mexican culture.

In 1956 he was readmitted to the PCM and in 1957 he wrote Cain's motives, a text that followed the theory of the “type” character, defended by socialist realism – which led to it being harshly attacked by literary critics, for allegedly having allowed itself to be carried away by “stereotypes”, in a text in which “black Manichaeism” predominated -white, good-bad, without in-betweens or complex characters, as in other of his texts.”

In 1960, he was once again expelled from the PCM for new criticisms he made of the party's line, and then joined the Partido Obrero-Campesino Mexicano (POCM). The following year he founded the Spartacus Leninist League (LLE). In 1962 he published the Essay on a headless proletariat, which also generated a lot of controversy. His clashes with some positions adopted by the PCM increased with the publication of The mistakes (1964), when he exposed his thesis of the “historical non-existence” of the PCM, arguing that the party did not perform the historical functions it was responsible for carrying out – which is why it would be severely criticized.

In 1968, an emblematic year of political ferment in various parts of the planet, there were large demonstrations organized by the student movement in Mexico City. The mobilization, which had started as another fight between young people from different university establishments, soon gained strength due to the political and civilizing demands that united the students, challenging the government which, at that time, was committed to holding the Olympics (which would take place in the same year, after the army opened fire on the students the day before, leaving hundreds dead).

Invited by the National Strike Council, José Revueltas gave, at the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, a speech on university autonomy and Marxism. From that moment on, he became a reference figure for the student community participating in the movement; In the various Trotskyist groups, with whom he maintained relations, he criticized the bureaucratism that, in his view, had taken over the communist movement. With the killing of students on October 2 (known as the Tlatelolco Massacre), the government intensified its repressive activity. José Revueltas, who was hiding at a friend's house, was arrested on November 16 and taken to Lecumberri prison.

During the years he remained incarcerated, he had a very active intellectual life, writing letters, essays, and even going on a hunger strike. Intellectuals such as Pablo Neruda, Arthur Miller and Henri Lefebvre, among others, wrote to the Mexican government asking for their freedom.

In May 1971, José Revueltas was released from prison and resumed his intense schedule of activities. While free, he participated in several events and established himself as a public figure.

With his health weakening in recent years, including due to long periods in prison (it is estimated that he was imprisoned for a total of 54 months), José Revueltas died on April 14, 1976, victim of a cardiac arrest.

Contributions to Marxism

As a thinker and artist, José Revueltas belonged to the generation of Mexican Marxists who, in the middle of the XNUMXth century, made the transition from the “first” to the “second” stage – although, until his death, he was moving through later moments of Marxism, reflecting on new perspectives that came to be debated.

The so-called first generation of Mexican Marxism had the Russian Revolution as a political reference point and adopted the Marxism of the Communist International; he did not criticize the Soviet model, but rather assimilated it as a desirable direction for overcoming capitalism and the semi-colonial condition of backward countries. The historical horizon of this generation is marked by the anti-fascist struggle and the Stalinist political model, as well as by the initial stages of the construction of the post-revolutionary State in Mexico – having provided the public with translations of the works of Marx and other classics of philosophy and human sciences , proposing an interpretation of the country's recent history based on the principles of historical materialism.

The next generation, at first, remained faithful to the line of the Communist International, but would later break with Stalinism – as was the case with José Revueltas. The Cuban Revolution then became the new beacon of socialist transformation, and anti-imperialism, the line that guided many of the positions adopted at the time.

With regard to his activism and militancy, José Revueltas stood out as an organic intellectual; in addition to being an important – and controversial – militant of the Communist Party of Mexico and the Popular Party), he founded the Spartacus Leninist League.

The Mexican Marxist's theoretical contributions to historical materialism can be studied in two dimensions: as an essayist, who did not shy away from intervening in demonstrations and debates; and as an artist (narrator and playwright). What characterizes both his novels and his national interpretation essays is, in general, the fact that he put the postulates of the Third International into discussion; themes such as obedience and party discipline, sectarianism and revolutionary praxis are objects of questioning – opposing models or dictates coming from outside.

With this, José Revueltas sought to combat any attempts to rigidify Marxism, establishing a reflection that would be remarkable for subsequent generations of Marxists in Mexico. In his work, Marxism, in addition to becoming a vital philosophy for any form of concrete action – revolutionary and transformative – is also a tool that makes it possible to question the very mistakes and abuses that can be committed in its name.

Thanks to his early reading of the Economic-philosophical manuscripts (1844), published in the USSR in 1932 and read by him in the 1930s, Revueltas incorporated into his thinking the idea of ​​“alienation” – a philosophical concept taken from the writings of the young Marx. In his texts, the Mexican Marxist would return to this theme of alienation several times, not only with a view to theoretical debate, but as a consistent conception that served him to debate the Mexican Revolution and the birth of bourgeois-democratic ideology in the country (which consolidated during the following decades). Such questions gave input to his thesis of the “historical non-existence” of the PCM – a proposition that is based on the argument that the party was incapable of organizing the working masses towards its constitution as an organized revolutionary body, thus failing to fulfill the historical tasks for which he was created.

Another of his contributions, the result of the era of engagement and commitment in which he lived, were the dialogues he established with “existentialism”, a philosophy that he sought to assimilate to Marxism. With this, in his literary texts – in which he embarks on critical realism – he was able to create characters who face, in anguish, the crossroads of life, the existential decisions to which they are subject.

A fundamental and original trait in José Revueltas' thought was to make syntheses about the history of Mexico and the organization of the working class, based on Marxist notions and categories. However, it is worth insisting that the significant repercussion of his theses and ideas, in addition to his theoretical texts and essays, is largely due to his literary writings – novels, novels and plays. This is the case, for example, of your book The mistakes (1964), a work that worsened his clashes with the PCM (a party from which he had been expelled a few years earlier).

In this novel, he summarizes his positions as a Marxist and criticizes Stalin's legacy – exposing, in the voice of a character, what is one of his best-known sentences: “upon us, the true communists – members of the party or not – will rest their terrible, the overwhelming task of being the ones who will put history before the task of deciding whether this epoch, this century full of perplexities, will be designated as the century of the Moscow Trials or as the century of the October Revolution.”

Comment on the work

José Revueltas dedicated himself diligently to both theoretical writing and literature. Here we first present his most relevant essay works – among his extensive work –, and then, his literary production.

It is worth noting that in his essays, both brief and longer, he always mobilizes Marxist categories, addressing the theme of the organization of the working class in Mexico and their difficulties over time in articulating themselves into a class party.

In 1935, after returning from prison in Marias Islands (1932-1934), during the government of President Lázaro Cárdenas (with his class conciliation policy), Revueltas published Young worker: Here's the path! (Mexico City: Ediciones Espartaco, 1935), a text in which, contrary to the dominant interpretations of the time, he saw in this apparently “socialist” government the expression of the interests of the landowners, the Mexican bourgeoisie and Yankee imperialism. In the author's conception, everyone would be legitimized by an ideology that consisted of a “refined deception of the masses”, since its objective was to domesticate the working class through the creation of government unions destined to supplant the spontaneous organization of the proletariat.

In 1947, a few years after being expelled from the PCM, having become close to Vicente Toledano, José Revueltas wrote The problem of the proletarian vanguard and the “unification” of Marxism in Mexico (Cid. México: ERA, 1983), published posthumously. The importance of this essay lies in the historical assessment it makes of the PCM. He criticizes the party leadership which, according to him, during the period from 1929 to 1935, separated itself from the masses and embraced “leftism”. Later, when the PCM opposed Toledano, it did not know how to take advantage of the moment to become the true vanguard of the proletariat in Mexico; he credited the party problem to the leadership of Hernán Laborde, Valentín Campa and Miguel Ángel Velasco, arguing that the fair line was that of Toledano.

Later, in 1958, he published Mexico: a barbaric democracy (Cid. México: Ediciones Anteo, 1958), text in which he addressed different problems of the political regime established by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), which guaranteed the predominance of the bourgeoisie in power, making the social concerns expressed in the Constitutional Charter written after the Revolution of 1910. In this work of historical interpretation, José Revueltas analyzed the problem of presidential succession at a time when the PRI – the party of order – had the practice of defining the successor based on a nomination made by the president at the end of his term.

The controversial element of this book is related to the criticism directed at Toledano and his influence on Mexican politics, marked by conciliation with the dominant regime. With this work, Revueltas dialogued with the third generation of Mexican Marxists, when Marxism was already within the scope of universities – developed in several treatises on the country's social formation, such as those published by Pablo González Casanova, Alonso Aguilar Monteverde, Adolfo Gilly, Ángel Bassols Batalla and Enrique Semo, among others.

Another of his inspiring texts is Essay on a headless proletariat (Cid. México: Ed. Liga Leninista Espartaco, 1962), a text that generated considerable controversy, due to its aforementioned thesis of the “historical non-existence” of the Communist Party of its country. In it, Revueltas provides a historical overview, since the XNUMXth century, of the formation of the working class in Mexico, as well as its attempts at organization.

Already in Cinematic knowledge and its problems (Cid. México: UNAM, 1965), defends the idea that cinema differs from other arts due to its power of synthesis: for being able to present an artistic manifestation in a relatively short time.

In 1970, he brought together the essays that would make up Questions and intentions (Cid. México: Ediciones Era, 1978), published just two years after his death. For the book, he selected his most relevant writings, written since 1950, several of them related to philosophical questions of aesthetics, including an analysis of his own work, motivated by the controversy raised, two decades earlier, by the novel The earthly days.

In 1975 he concluded Dialectic of consciousness (Cid. México: Ediciones Era, 1982), a set of studies written in Lecumberri prison that were also published posthumously, with a prologue by Henri Lefebvre (in which the French Marxist brings the Mexican closer to the work of the so-called Frankfurt School). In this text, José Revueltas shows how contradictions act in consciousness, in a “dialectic” conflict between the subject and the object analyzed (be it political, economic or everyday); Along this path, based on the relationship between Hegel's philosophy and Marx's, he reflects on the theme of alienation, which also permeates other of his works.

However, the main repercussion of his ideas is in his works of fiction, which gave him notoriety as a Marxist writer and thinker. An author of multiple skills, his literary production is broad, ranging from novels, soap operas and short stories to poems and dramas, as well as works in cinema – with adaptations and production of film scripts. It can be seen in the literary texts described below – chosen among his most relevant – that José Revueltas already demonstrated the influence exerted by works such as Economic-philosophical manuscripts, by Marx (whose Spanish translation was published in Mexico in 1938, entitled Political economy and philosophy: relations of political economy with the State, law, morality and bourgeois life.

The walls of water (Cid. México: Talleres de la Sociedad Cooperativa Artes Gráficas Comerciales, 1941) is a novel in which he finds that the authoritarian State not only exercises violence against Marxist dissent, but makes it coextensive with the rest of society. By focusing on characters from the lower classes, he asks whether they could become subjects of political praxis or whether they would simply constitute the lumpenproletariat.

Subsequently, in Human mourning (Cid. México: Editorial México, 1943), based on a series of characters who find themselves immersed, fatally, at the crossroads of several episodes in the history of Mexico (the Mexican Revolution and the religious war known as the Cristera War) , the novel addresses the theme of the country's atavistic social inequality and the conflicts it generates. Written in third person, its narrator is imbued with a strong existentialist tone, a fact that made him the target of severe criticism from some Marxists at the time.

Among the novel's gallery of characters, Natividad stands out, a communist leader who tries to organize the masses of workers, many of them depoliticized, to carry out a strike and fight to realize the revolutionary ideals of agrarian reform. This character (generous, idealistic and who believes in the redeeming nature of his actions) ends up being murdered by Adán, a henchman of the powerful. Although the novel acquired importance in the Mexican literary tradition, it ended up generating criticism within the PCM because it did not conform to the postulates of socialist realism, in force at that time.

The aforementioned romance The earthly days (Cid. México: Editorial Stylo, 1949) is another of his relevant texts for Mexican literature – having caused strong controversy among PCM activists. Claiming to be “armed” with his own “lived experience,” he said he would like to reflect on “the life, concerns, contradictions and struggles of Mexican communists during the period of hiding.”

José Revueltas was harshly criticized for opposing, in this work, a “critical” militant (Gregorio) to a supposedly “pure” one (Fidel), who confuses loyalty to the Communist Party with ideological fanaticism. For him, it was a criticism of a characteristic stance of many activists, who carried the party's identity around their necks as if it were a scapular or who, in an excessive way, equated opponents, whether they were socialist opponents (Trotskyists, Mensheviks) or fascist enemies. On the other hand, engaging in a debate with the PCM, the character Gregorio questions the class-against-class policy adopted at that time. The use of biblical references and the existentialist tone that permeates the novel led to it being accused of creating “a literature of misplacement”; he was also criticized because he did not adhere to the postulates of socialist realism, not showing the rise of the struggle of the marginalized, but only their alienated situation.

Already in his controversial book The mistakes (Cid. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1964), the author tells the stories of two groups of characters: the first, some members of the PCM who organize various actions underground; and the second, characters who belong to the world of marginality. However, both plots, apparently independent, suggest crossovers that equate them. The two stories take place at the same time during 24 hours on two days in December 1941, and the characters, both communists and prostitutes, thieves and fascists, move through the urban, marginal and nightlife of the capital of this decade.

At the end of the narrative, it becomes clear that both groups are hostage to the alienation that results from the circumstances to which they are subjected. Thus, on the side of the lumpen are a pimp, a murderous dwarf and mistreated prostitutes, all of them affected by poverty and violence. On the communist side, a university professor and an architect sympathetic to the cause, tied to an inflexible political ideal that, freely chosen by themselves, sounds even worse. The account of the events and the dilemmas of communist militants in the narrative (victims of harassment by Stalinists against Trotskyists and old Leninist militants) are the backdrop against which José Revueltas criticizes the Communist Party.

This novel – in which it equates the pimp, the prostitute and the loan shark with the PCM activist – works within the aesthetics of critical realism, incorporating, however, elements of the detective genre. According to the critic, what made it uncomfortable was the fact that “the structure of two parallel plots, which are confused and end up coming together in the end, makes it clear that party leaders and the lumpen act in a similar way”. The parallelism that exists in the two stories suggests that, as the characters from the “underworld” are alienated (through poverty, prostitution or homosexuality), they show themselves as a mirror (hence the simultaneity and contact of the two stories) of communist alienation itself, which It is even more serious and atrocious because it is not economic – but intellectual and voluntary.

While in prison, he also wrote his well-known novel The apando (Cid. México: Ediciones Era, 1969), in which the characters are placed in a context of degradation that leads them to prison life. In this alienating situation, from which the protagonists cannot see a way out, José Revueltas elaborates his critique, by making prison conditions a metaphor for society. This book inspired a 1976 feature film of the same name, directed by Mexican filmmaker Felipe Cazals.

Shortly before he passed away, he published Sueños material (Cid. México: Ediciones Era, 1974), a collection of short stories in which he focuses on humor, without ceasing to work on marginality, restlessness in his characters – each one living in an extreme situation.

Texts by José Revueltas can be found freely on the internet, on portals such as Mexican Writers Association (https://asociaciondeescritoresmex.org) and that of Omegalfa Virtual Library (https://omegalfa.es).

*Victor Manuel Ramos Lemus He is a professor of literature and literary theory at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). Author, among other books, of Studies of literature, criticism and society (Quicksilver).

Originally published on the Praxis Nucleus-USP.

References


ANGUIANO, Arturo. José Revueltas, a melancholic rebel: barbaric democracy, social revolutions and emancipation. Cid. Mexico: Critical Thinking Ediciones, 2017.

CASTRO QUITEÑO, Norma. “Oppose the hour and here of life, the hour and here of death.” In: REVUELTAS, Andrea; CHERON, Philippe (org.). Conversations with José Revueltas. Cid. Mexico: Era, 2001.

FUENTES Morrúa, Jorge; MALDONADO, Ezequiel. “The errors: literature, philosophy and politics”. Theme and Variations of Literature, Cid. Mexico, n. 20, 2003. Disp.: http://espartaco.azc.uam.mx.

ILLADES, Carlos. Marxism in Mexico: an intellectual history. Cid. Mexico: Taurus, 2018.

MÉNDEZ ROJAS, Diana Alejandra. Worker-peasant cooperation in two areas: the Mexican Communist Party and the League of Socialist Agrónomos (1935-1947). Izquierdas Magazine, Santiago de Chile, n. 50, 2021. Available: https://dialnet.unirioja.es.

MUSACCHIO, Humberto et al. More Revueltas: five approaches to Pepe’s life. Cid. Mexico: Brigada Cultural, 2017.

PEÑA, Sonia Adriana. “José Revueltas: mistakes and achievements of a communist writer”. In: FUNDACIÓN PARA LAS LETRAS MEXICANAS. Encyclopedia of literature in Mexico. Cid. Mexico: FLM, 2012.

YÉPEZ, Edgar; OLMO COLÍN, R. Mauricio del. “The mistakes”. In: FUNDACIÓN PARA LAS LETRAS MEXICANAS. Encyclopedia of literature in Mexico. Cid. Mexico: FLM, 2012.


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