Luiz Werneck Vianna (1938-2024)

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By MARCO AURÉLIO NOGUEIRA*

Paying homage to Werneck means keeping alive the memory of a combative, erudite, generous and indignant intellectual, who looked at an unequal, unjust and violent country like Brazil with lucidity and hope.

With the death of sociologist Luiz Werneck Vianna, which occurred on February 21st, Brazilian social sciences lost one of their most important researchers, author of seminal works and a tireless intellectual worker, a public figure of rare stature.

I met him in the mid-1970s, in environments frequented by socialists, communists and democratic liberals, who formed the left of the then MDB. Luiz Werneck Vianna had just defended his doctoral thesis (Liberalism and union in Brazil, 1976) and I remember the generosity with which he received the critical review I made of the book, in the newspaper Folha de S. Paul.

In the political meetings that were taking place at the time, his mind stood out for its shrewdness and firmness of convictions. He did not give up Marxism and did not hide his links with the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB), but he was not dogmatic and welcomed the most diverse sources of thought with respect and admiration. He demarcated a space dedicated to finding points of balance and consensus, without which, he said, it would be impossible to build a productive opposition to the dictatorship and a sustainable democracy. Even then, he formulated the thesis that it was essential to look at the world from the perspective of the actors who moved in it.

“Facts are nothing more than facts and only become part of the field of politics to the extent that they are organized and interpreted by those who are actors in politics”, wrote Luiz Werneck Vianna in a luminous passage. “Because the constitution of an interpretation is not arbitrary and the concatenation of political facts depends on how the actor is inscribed in the concrete economic-social formation.”

Over time, Luiz Werneck Vianna would make this thesis the basis of formulations about Brazilian society, its transformations and its possibilities, determined by a dramatic process of “passive revolution”, a concept that he critically absorbed from Antonio Gramsci and with which he sought understand the complex and difficult emergence of actors with reforming strength who, in contemporary Brazil, were unable to escape the co-optation mechanisms put in place by the State.

Cooptation, for Luiz Werneck Vianna, impeded and blocked, but did not prevent molecular advances from happening: the State did not act alone, as an autonomous entity, but was shaped by social interests, which in a certain way privatized it. Brazil would modernize in compromise with its historical delay. Revolutions occurred under conditions of “conservative modernization”, that is, without “radical ruptures” with the status quo, that is, in a procedural way. A good example of this is in the book The Passive Revolution: Iberism and Americanism in Brazil (1997)

Luiz Werneck Vianna was a distinguished academic. He researched and studied a lot, moving between theory, reading the great classics, law and sociology. His primary focus, however, was politics, which he approached from a well-crafted critical realism and a tireless concern to understand the social framework in its entirety. Werneck was passionate about the work he did. He had his principles and convictions, but he never failed to assimilate what intellectuals who walked in other directions thought and wrote.

He was not a conciliator, but rather a thinker open to the world of ideas and unhappy with the political and social situation in Brazil. His concerns took shape through a creative dialogue with the most important public issues at each juncture, always attentive to the possibilities offered to a democratic movement that positioned itself in a broad and plural way.

Therefore, when, in 2010, the Federal University of Juiz de Fora published a book with articles that discussed his work and his trajectory, the organizers (Rubem Barboza Filho and Fernando Perlatto) were happy to give the book the title of An indignant sociology, an expression that fit like a glove with the persona and production of Luiz Werneck Vianna, “an admirable intellectual not only for his academic work and his relevant inscription in the public sphere, but for his enormous generosity and respect towards his professional colleagues and their students".

Werneck Vianna's work was decisive for us to better understand Brazilian history, establishing a way of thinking about society, the State, politics and democracy. For him, politics was the creation of States, of collective life and of the democratic domestication of power, it could not be reduced to electoral moments, nor could it be treated as “produced from top to bottom, underestimating society’s ability to self-govern.” organize without the benevolent inducement of a compassionate government.”

Honoring him today is keeping alive the memory of a combative, erudite, generous and indignant intellectual, who looked at an unequal, unjust and violent country like Brazil with lucidity and hope, betting on the strength of civil society and the pioneering potential of politics. It was a privilege to have been his friend and learn from his thoughts. We owe him a lot.

*Marco Aurélio Nogueira He is a retired professor of political theory at Unesp. Author, among other books, of Democracy challenged (Humanities Atelier).

Originally published in the newspaper The State of S. Paul.


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