Notes for a history of workers

Maria Bonomi, Lunik Tot, woodcut, 100.00 cm x 88.00 cm, 1966.


Commentary on the book by Marco Aurélio Garcia

In 1979, returning from exile following the amnesty, Marco Aurélio Garcia produced a legendary series of articles for the alternative newspaper In time about the history of the Brazilian left from 1960 to 1979. It was about facing the challenge of writing a story in the heat of the moment about the 20 years that preceded that key moment of struggle for democratic construction, marked by the change in the proposed party organization law by the military government, extinguishing the previously imposed bipartisanship. It forbade communist parties, but it opened the door to organize a legal party on the left with which Marco Aurélio Garcia would identify, helping to build it for the rest of his life, the PT.

Student activist of the clandestine PCB in the early 1960s, UNE leader, councilor in Porto Alegre for the Republican Party, member of the POC after the 1964 coup, forced by circumstances to go into exile in Chile and France, the history of his political life Marco Aurélio was linked with the series of articles he wrote. They did not fail to signify a personal and generational reckoning with the recent past that would make it possible to take steps towards the future that was opening up for the Brazilian left.

There was an effervescent climate of the so-called new social movements, notably the new unionism led by metallurgists from the ABC region of São Paulo, as well as the public resurgence of the student movement, the organization of feminist, black and homosexual struggles, in addition to the flowering of the Catholic left inspired by by liberation theology, linked to popular movements for social rights on the outskirts of large cities, notably São Paulo, where the author of the articles established himself. They were the “new characters that entered the scene”, according to the title of the book by his friend Eder Sader. Everything reported by the vibrant and diversified alternative press, which included the newspaper In time, which brought together contributors from various leftist tendencies, including Marco Aurélio Garcia, a member of the editorial board.

The political opening and the end of prior censorship of the press made it possible to dare to divulge the recent history of the Brazilian left, forced to fight underground. It was not just a question of journalistic dissemination with a political aim, but also of building historical knowledge, resorting to the consultation and analysis of documents, interviews and other sources, seeking the greatest distance possible to treat the various left currents with impartiality. This historiographic commitment also resulted from the formation of Marco Aurélio as a student in Paris in 1968 and 1969, later a professor in Chile and France throughout the 1970s, a trajectory that would continue as a professor at Unicamp, where he was director of the Edgard Leuenroth Archive, whose rich collection of social and political documents helped to build in the 1980s.

This historian character – inseparable from his trajectory as a militant and political leader – is not always incorporated into the public image of Marco Aurélio, in part because his writings were scattered in different publications. The organizers of the MAG collection, Bruno Gaspar, Rose Spina and Dainis Karepovs, tried to carry out the author's unfinished task, compiling the essentials of his production in three thick volumes sponsored by the Perseu Abramo Foundation and the Futuro Institute – Marco Aurélio Garcia.

As for the specific volume I am commenting on, it is worth highlighting the commitment of Dainis Karepovs, a leading researcher into the history of the Brazilian left, so averse to the logic of celebrities in the intellectual world that he appears discreetly in the issue. However, without stealing the spotlight, his intervention was decisive in the work of organizing Marco Aurélio's pioneering contribution to the history of the Brazilian left in the series of articles for the In time, a task that Marcus Aurelius himself kept putting off. He tried to recover from the pages of the newspaper and give organic form to a book the first dense overview published on the subject, preceding the book by eight years. Dark Combat, by Jacob Gorender, which achieved deserved success.

In time started publishing the series Contribution to the History of the Brazilian Left in August 1979, reaching a total of 29 articles, 22 of them by Marco Aurélio, author of two more articles and responses to several letters. The whole set is reproduced in the book organized by Karepovs, who noted that the series announced its intention to respond to the desire detected in youth to know recent history. Judging by the paper's increased sales, it hit the nail on the head. I can give you a testimony: a student at age 20, still not imagining that I would research this topic academically in the future, every week I would run to the newsstand to buy a copy of the newspaper. He collected materials that would be difficult for subsequent generations to access, until in good time they were finally turned into a book, 40 years after their original edition.

Much has been published on the subject since then, but this does not mean that the text has aged. He continues to be interested not only in the well-founded historical reconstitution, but especially in the original analytical proposal of synthesis of the experience of the Brazilian left. It helps to understand, for example, the division and divergences between the 34 listed organizations, based on three axes: the character of the Brazilian revolution (national-democratic or socialist), the type of revolutionary organization (party or guerrilla group), and the forms of struggle to reach power (peaceful or armed – insurrectionary or guerrilla – with emphasis on the countryside or in the city), with several hybrid or intermediate positions between each alternative. These three analytical coordinates became so current in later studies that their origin in the work of Marcus Aurelius is often forgotten.

The 645-page volume also contains other articles by the author on the left, some produced in the new century, but in general they were written at the same time as the series, linked directly or indirectly to the context of the emergence of the PT and the novelty it represented, although the theme does not appear explicitly. There was, between the lines, the hope that the new party that was born could be the overcoming of previous traditions, notably Bolshevik and social democratic, also going beyond anarchism, Trotskyism, the Christian left, laborism, identifying itself with autonomist proposals . The critical appreciation of the analyzed history was made in the light of concerns at the time it was written, when Marx's old motto was emphasized "the emancipation of the workers will be the work of the workers themselves", a phrase read by Marco Aurélio and his companions from from the inspiration of authors such as EP Thompson, Claude Lefort and Cornelius Castoriadis, valuing the lived experience of the popular classes.

The fights from then on were many and diverse, the wheel of history took its turns. Marco participated in PT governments at municipal and federal levels, building a history that can be analyzed with instruments similar to the ones he used to think about the dilemmas of the previous left, seeking to serenely understand its scope and limits, building objective knowledge without losing sight of view the horizon of socialist and democratic transformation. Continuing this work is the best tribute that can be paid to the historian and militant who would have turned 80 this June 2021 and is sorely needed to help unravel and face the difficult times we are living.

*Marcelo Ridenti is a full professor of sociology at Unicamp. Author, among other books by In search of the Brazilian people (Unesp).


Marco Aurelio Garcia. Notes for a history of workers. São Paulo, IMAG / Fundação Perseu Abramo, 2019, 648 pages.

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