The intellectual craftsmanship of Florestan Fernandes

Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino


Brief account of research in his personal library and archives.

Talking about the Library and Personal Archive of Florestan Fernandes was, for me, a task of great responsibility. At first, I didn't know which way to go. I really wanted to talk about everything I could find in my experience with the Florestan Library. I even use the word coexistence because I lived with the people who work there, worked there or simply visited it. But I can say that living the Library was my way of dialoguing with Florestan.

The first visit was in 2003, for just one month; I returned in 2005, living in the city of São Carlos for a year; I returned after 12 years, in 2018, and visited the Florestan Library twice more, in 2019. I don't know why it took me so long to come back. Perhaps because the Florestan Library represented, in my academic life, the moment of greatest freedom dedicated almost exclusively to reading, without the pressure to publish and doing what gave me the most joy. It is impossible to talk about the library without evoking this personal experience. It was with great sadness that, in August 2006, if I'm not mistaken with the date, I left Florestan's collection and returned to my real world.

At the time, I was working on my doctoral thesis, defended in 2009 at UFPE, under the guidance of Prof. Eliane Veras Soares, whom I thank, above all, for respecting my intellectual autonomy and also for the always very pertinent criticisms so that I could deepen my own arguments, reconstruct them and better defend my ideas. For those who know Eliane, know that the life story she wrote about Florestan Fernandes still serves as a reference for us to think about the inseparability between academics and politicians, sociologists and socialists. At least that's how I interpret your book Florestan Fernandes: the lonely militant (SOARES, 1997), for which Eliane conducted interviews with Florestan between 1990 and 1991, almost unpublished interviews that are in the process of being published. The explanatory notes that will accompany the publication of the interviews were carried out based on research at the library and at Fundo Florestan Fernandes.[1]

I would like to thank Vera Lúcia Cóscia who, at the end of 2005, if I am not mistaken in the reconstruction of the date, invited me to work on the handwritten records of Florestan Fernandes, which he kept in a wooden cabinet specially built to serve as his intellectual archive and this furniture it reminds us of those in libraries, when we consulted the call numbers of the titles on cardboard sheets. By the way, building an archive was the first recommendation of Wright Mills, the great name of American critical sociology that Florestan respected so much, so that we can unleash our “sociological imagination”. Until then, I had only read in the works of Florestan Fernandes the mentions of his notes, his files, the materials from the collection of information from his research and, in the testimonies of people who were close to him, the memories of his tireless discipline of taking notes copiously. I can only owe an eternal debt of gratitude to Vera Lúcia Cóscia, for inviting me to share Florestan Fernandes' research files and divide them thematically. My greatest joy is knowing that, thanks in part to my work, this entire rich collection has been digitized and can now be made available to other researchers.

I would also like to thank my colleagues who are now in charge of the Florestan Fernandes Library and Fund, Izabel da Mota Franco and Siomara Mello de Almeida Prado, for having preserved the pieces of cardboard on which I was able to subdivide the files and notes by subject. by Florestan Fernandes, in which he used to collect observations and reflections on the themes that most absorbed him in the different phases of his rich and multifaceted intellectual and political trajectory. Thus, I was able to have a very broad dimension of what we can find as research material that is still almost unpublished today and of its importance to carry out new works of interpretation of the sociological thought of Florestan Fernandes and his political worldview. The count that I made one by one of Florestan's files – at the time I copied by hand or typed a lot of information that interested me – is still written in pencil in two school notebooks, a small contribution of mine to the archival mapping and construction of the Florestan Fund Fernandes. I even typed up all these notes, keeping all this information with me. I was able to surprise Florestan in his first field notes, which would later give rise, for example, to Trocinhas do Bom Retiro, a work awarded in 1944 and published with a preface by Roger Bastide; the analytical files on the Tupinambá appear as a true historiographical exercise of internal and external criticism of the sources; the field notebooks on the Syrians and Lebanese are preserved and give us countless clues about the designs of his unfinished research; the material produced from a diverse range of research methods and techniques in the studies of the Unesco Project on color prejudice and racial discrimination in the city of São Paulo – such as life stories, records of public meetings with the black intelligentsia in São Paulo, personal testimonials, interviews, direct observations, reading notes, etc. – is still today one of the richest source of information, suggestions and hypotheses for new historical and sociological works on Brazilian racism. What I'm talking about here would just be a sample of what's in the Florestan Fernandes Fund and I don't think I got to examine even one percent of all the material. There would be many other things to mention, such as Florestan's lesson plans on ongoing revolutions and his notes on Latin America, which would help us to deepen essential dimensions of his sociological thought or his socialist political convictions.

Speaking now of the library, I cannot fail to mention a reading that I consider essential and that would better be able to convey the human dimension of Florestan's attachment to reading. The sociologist Heloísa Fernandes, Florestan's daughter, in Love of Books - My Father's Reminiscences in His Library (FERNANDES, 1998), helps us to know a little about the working method of our “craftsman-sociologist”:

His books were his fortune, but not fetishes to be cleaned, polished, bound. As only children know how to do with their treasures, their books were use values, read and reread by an active, attentive, demanding reader, who takes notes, writes, scribbles, underlines, to the point that, many times, , two texts: that of the author himself and that of his reader! (FERNANDES, 1998, p. 49).

In a brief message written on October 05, 2020 and speaking of his father's library, sociologist Heloísa Fernandes says: "I was always impressed with the visual memory he had of all the books". By the way, the expression “sociologist-craftsman” – which, in this case, he uses to analyze the work of Wright Mills – is also borrowed from Heloísa Fernandes, whom I would like to thank for the generous observations about her father's library and the criticisms always so precise to the texts I write about the sociological work of Florestan Fernandes. I don't think there is a better word to say about Florestan. He was a master of his craft, a true “craftsman-sociologist”. References to intellectual craftsmanship are always present when Florestan Fernandes retrospectively reflects on his own sociological production. In an essay with strong autobiographical elements, In search of a critical and militant sociology, the idea of ​​intellectual craftsmanship will always be mentioned in a context of overcoming difficulties, referring us to the boy Vicente – the son of an illiterate Portuguese maid, who had the right to be called by his own refused name in his earliest childhood – who would become then in the internationally respected sociologist Florestan Fernandes and, according to many people, head of the Escola Paulista de Sociologia, a title that he himself sometimes considers a bit excessive. Vicente was the name of his godmother, Dona Hermínia Bresser de Lima, because Florestan would be a very pompous name for the son of a maid and Vicente would be the name of a poor man. Many years later our great sociologist would say, in an interview in 1984 to the Vox Populi, that Vicente played a crucial role in shaping his character. In the aforementioned autobiographical essay, he will give us the following account of his experiences as a second-year student of the USP social sciences course:

[…] already in the second year of the course I knew very well what I wanted to be and I had focused on craft learning – therefore, I did not compare myself to the baby, who begins to crawl and talk, but to the apprentice, who transforms the master craftsman into a provisional model. The culture of my foreign masters intimidated me. I thought I could never match them. The standard was too high for our provincial potentialities – for what the environment could support – and especially for me, with my precarious intellectual background and the material difficulties I faced, which took up a large part of my time and my activities. energies of what you would like to do. […] In short, the Vicente that I had been was finally dying and in his place was being born, frighteningly for me, the Florestan that I was going to be. (FERNANDES, 1977, p. 157).

It is quite significant that, in relation to the research on the Tupinambá, in which Florestan develops an endopathic relationship with this civilization originating in the lands that would later become Brazil and other Latin American countries, he states the following: “I reached the stature of an artisan who dominates and loves his job, because he knows how to practice it and what it is for” (FERNANDES, 1977, p. 175). In fact, Florestan Fernandes constructs himself as a “sociologist-craftsman” and we can get to know his intellectual craftsmanship by scrutinizing the riches present in his library and in his personal archive. I remember some readings by Florestan Fernandes in his library that, in my opinion, link him to his social origin. He read the memoirs of Gregório Bezerra and made some marginal notes, identifying himself with the Pernambuco communist of humble origin, just like him. In the same way, reading The prison letters by Antonio Gramsci and underlining all the passages in which the leader of the communist party in Italy said that it was necessary to have “strength”, Florestan is in some way in solidarity with the human sacrifice of the social struggle on the part of those who assumed all the consequences when fighting regimes fascist, dictatorial and violent. Florestan himself was punished by an exceptional regime and persecuted by state terrorism. I wanted to make these quick mentions because I think that Florestan's library is inseparable from the figure of Vicente, from his social origins and from everything he intended to make of sociology, an instrument of transformation of society so that the dispossessed, those from below, could to have a future with dignity, justice, freedom, equality, happiness and fraternity. A central dialogue that Florestan establishes with Marx's thought concerns the philosophical critique of alienation in capitalist society, in particular with The economic-philosophical manuscripts. It is from this humanist tradition that Florestan nurtures a vast intellectual curiosity, encompassing the most diverse fields of social sciences and humanities.

What I would like to point out is that Florestan's library compiles fundamental works from the most diverse areas of knowledge. I turn once more to the beautiful text by Heloísa Fernandes to talk about this inexhaustible source of research that is Florestan's library. The author asks us several questions, the answers to which can only be found with collective, serious and respectful research in the library, in the personal archive and in the published works of our “artisan-sociologist”:

Why so many authors from other currents, tendencies, schools? Why is it that, sometimes, your fiercest adversaries have an equal or even greater presence than your companions and allies? Why was he never able to get rid of even the fascist authors he so despised and fought against? Why does so much Sociology from so many areas, ages, schools and backgrounds need to coexist and dialogue with Anthropology, Politics, Economics, History, Geography, Pedagogy, Psychology, Psychoanalysis, Logic, Literature, Philosophy? Library of a humanist or intelligentsia, as Mannheim would say, of this historical type of intellectual who marked the best of this 1998th century, the intellectual who claims his right to have a voice in society, legitimizing himself in a double commitment: on the one hand, with himself, in demanding the tougher seriousness and responsibility, and, on the other hand, with the highest aspirations of his people and his time (FERNANDES, 49, p. 50-XNUMX).

In Florestan's library, books stand out that help us reconstruct much of the history of social sciences in Brazil, Latin America and internationally. The existing collection on Latin America is truly impressive, featuring works by many classic thinkers such as the anti-colonialist revolutionary and hero of the independence struggle in Cuba, José Martí, and the Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui, or by Latin American social scientists who, with Florestan corresponded at specific times, among which we can mention names such as Orlando Fals Borda (Colombia), Pablo González Casanova (Mexico), Gérard Pierre-Charles (Haiti), Roberto Fernández Retamar and Julio Le Riverend (Cuba), Orlando Albornoz (Venezuela) and José Nun (Argentina), the latter his friend and colleague at the University of Toronto. In short, Florestan Fernandes' library and personal archive represent an inexhaustible source of information not only for those who study his intellectual trajectory, his sociological production and his political thought, but for any and all researchers in the most varied areas of social sciences and of the humanities. We can find books from other areas, including one of the rare works by a Russian geneticist called Theodosius Dobzhanksy, a friend of Florestan and who, on his visits to Brazil, made a point of looking for him to talk. I spent a year going to the library every day and I believe that there would be many territories still to be explored and fields completely unknown to me. Leafing through some of his books, I was able to locate several of the literary images that Florestan alluded to in his writings, such as the young José, taken from Thomas Mann's novels. The metaphor of the well was always remembered by Florestan when referring to his social origins or the political crisis that came with the punishment of the dictatorial regime for 25 years dedicated to scientific research in the country. The same obscurantism plagues us today. Florestan was a humanist. In the words of Heloísa Fernandes, it is the library of a “humanist”, remembering that in his last days Florestan said he was a socialist who defended humanism.

Before closing my speech, I would like to present some of the work I have been doing with the aim of illustrating Florestan's reading methods. These are his reading records of the complete works of Lenin, a Marxist thinker whom he knew in depth and for whom he organized and introduced a collection for the famous collection Great Social Scientists, whose coordination he was responsible for with the Ática publishing house, publishing a total of sixty volumes. Following a few steps from his reading of Lenin, I intend to reconstruct the main lines of Florestan Fernandes' intellectual craftsmanship, in which we can glimpse the interfaces between his own biography, the historical movements of disputed ideological currents and the oppressive structures of Brazilian society. The first historical circumstance to consider is that Florestan will dedicate himself to reading Lenin's complete works even before concluding The bourgeois revolution in Brazil, a book published in 1975. His effort was precisely to understand the political motives of the preventive counterrevolution of 1964 and my hypothesis is that reading Lenin served as a comparative criterion in relation to the specificities of the Russian social formation, which had already passed by an overdue bourgeois revolution. Concerned with dependent capitalism in Brazil and, consequently, with the peculiar character of its bourgeois (counter)revolution, Florestan resorts to Lenin precisely as a fundamental theoretical perspective to analyze the bourgeois revolutions in process on the peripheries of the system and in the most fragile links of capitalism. It is in this sense that he will say:

The last consistent socialist analysis of the process of a late bourgeois revolution is that of Lenin – taking advantage of the phase from 1905 in Russia until 1907, more or less –, where some of his most important theoretical contributions to the social sciences appear (FERNANDES, 1978, p. 99-100).

In addition, another element of the perspective Leninian What Florestan would become increasingly interested in would be the Russian Marxist's analyzes of the last phases of Tsarist domination. “He [Lenin] interprets the Russian situation by confronting the situation of the bourgeoisie with the relative power of the tsar, the nobility and the bureaucracy” (FERNANDES, 1978, p. 100), so that the bourgeoisie – by accommodating itself with “more powerful forces of Russian society” (FERNANDES, 1978, p. 100), the forces of the old order – will exercise bourgeois power with a strong autocratic dimension typical of tsarism, although it is historically configured as a class domination of a specifically capitalist type. In this sense, the term autocracy takes on a more general validity and goes beyond the particular horizons of the Russian social formation. Confronting his own biography of a politically persecuted dictatorship and directing his gaze to the historical roots of the 1964 coup d'état, Florestan will be inspired by Lenin to develop the theoretical category of “bourgeois autocracy” and it was this particular historical situation of the Latin American dependent capitalism that led him to the comparative approach with Russian society. Marking a class domination of the periphery of the system in the era of imperialism and monopoly capitalism, the category of “bourgeois autocracy” precisely captures a structural characteristic of capitalist societies on an international scale and which today perhaps tends to become generalized. Class domination is exercised in an autocratic way in the face of the hegemony of parasitic fractions of financial capital in the centers and peripheries.

It is not the reading of Lenin that leads Florestan, theoretically, to discover theoretical notions of high explanatory value, but the Brazilian situation itself and his political biography as an opponent of fascism installed in the structures of the Brazilian State that lead him, on the contrary, to appropriate in an original way of thinking leninian to unveil the meaning of the political struggles of Latin American societies. Therefore, the “Florestan reader of Lenin” will exercise all its inventive talent in translating the ideas of the Bolshevik leader into Brazilian and Latin American key. By this I mean that Florestan was very aware of the historical differences between Russian society at the time of Lenin and Brazil in the 70s, but the comparative resource was essential for him to think about the structural and conjunctural characteristics of the bourgeois State in dependent capitalism. That is why his reading of Lenin cannot be taken as a mere manifestation of a Marxist profession of faith, but as an effort of political analysis of the correlations of forces between classes, class fractions, groups and other social categories that signal the ongoing historical trends. . This concrete analysis of the concrete situation would be Florestan's guideline for thinking about the paths of political action by the democratic forces, based on situations of interest to the working classes and the dispossessed masses.

What does all this have to do with Florestan's library? The technical procedures for reading texts, then used in a very specific way by our “sociologist-craftsman”, left records in multiple and diverse forms of italics, paragraph highlights, exclamations, ellipses, notes in the margins of the pages, analytical indexes at the end of the books prepared for their research purposes and, finally, often commentaries that summarize reasoning to be later developed through notes or summaries on notebook pages. With regard to Lenin, we have a true compact that allows us to compare the marks and registers of Florestan's readings with his introductory text to the aforementioned collection of political writings by the Russian revolutionary for the collection Grandes Cientistas Sociais by Ática publishing house. Moreover, in one of the copies of this volume in his library, Florestan left new records of his rereading of Lenin's political work, which can be compared with his previous reading of the texts taken from the French translation. Thus, in one of the Leninist texts taken by Florestan from volume 9 of the complete works in French by the Russian Marxist, Two tactics of social democracy in the democratic revolution, we can know the passages he considered fundamental, all of them marked with a capital F in the margin. The entire text was not selected, but only the section entitled “Where does the danger for the proletariat of having its hands tied in the struggle against the reckless bourgeoisie come from?”. On page 43 Florestan underlines the passage “[…] the entire class independence of the proletariat party in the current 'general democratic' movement” as fundamental, writing an F next to it and, in several of his writings, as in what is revolution, published in 1981 by Editora Brasiliense, our “craftsman-sociologist” constantly talks about the necessary class autonomy of the political organizations of the working classes. A little further on, between pages 44 and 45 of Lenin's writing, Florestan underlines passages that signal the insufficient development of capitalism in Russia, presenting as a political corollary that the bourgeois-democratic revolution would raise the level of the proletariat's conditions of struggle. Perhaps one can look for in several of Lenin's suggestions some of the most immediate theoretical sources of Florestan's later elaborations of the categories of "revolution within the order" and "revolution against the order", such as forged in the concrete analysis of the Brazilian and Latin American historical soils. American. These steps in the Leninist reading of Florestan Fernandes allow us to identify his method of work and recognize how he transformed the original ideas of the Russian revolutionary, theoretically and politically appropriating them to a new level. This analysis of Florestan's readings of Lenin's work has enabled us to identify his specific procedures for appropriating and reinventing concepts and, for this reason, I wanted to indicate in general terms the paths I have been following in the interpretation of his thought based on research carried out in your personal library and archive. I think that such procedures can be usefully extended in future investigations into other aspects of his vast sociological and political work.

I believe that there is much to be done in the study of Florestan Fernandes' work and it would be up to us to design a collective research plan - in which the books in his library and the personal archives of the Florestan Fernandes Fund are examined in detail by specialists in each of the themes worked on by our “craftsman-sociologist” and who, at the same time, have seriously read the aspects of Florestan's intellectual production linked to their respective specialties – which was consistent enough for us to take advantage of material of great historical value for Brazil and Latin America which UFSCar, as a public university and due to the long-term strategic vision of its directors at the time, became the guardian and has been preserving thanks to the tireless effort of our fellow librarians. This teamwork would also be a kind of recovery of the value of collective research in the social sciences, a value so desired and encouraged by Florestan Fernandes as a practice and lifestyle in the generation of Brazilian sociologists that he helped to form. Thank you very much!

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

Text established from a lecture given at a round table of the VI Seminar on Information and Memory Policy and the Centenary of Florestan Fernandes, on October 30, 2020. Available at:>. I would like to thank Heloísa Fernandes Silveira for her criticisms and observations.


FERNANDES, Florestan. Sociology in Brazil: contribution to the study of its formation and development. Petrópolis: Voices, 1977.

FERNANDES, Florestan. The status of sociologist. So Paulo: Hucitec, 1978.

FERNANDES, Heloisa Rodrigues. Love of books - my father's reminiscences in his library. In: MARTINEZ, Paulo Henrique (org.). Florestan or the sense of things. Sao Paulo: Boitempo, 1998.

SOARES, Eliane Veras. Florestan Fernandes: the lonely militant. São Paulo: Cortez, 1997.

Vox Populi interview with Florestan Fernandes. Youtube, 1984. Available at:> Accessed on: 06 Jun. of 2021


[1] The book with the interviews, Florestan Fernandes: trajectory, memories and dilemmas in Brazil, is in press and will be published by Marxismo21. In addition to the set of interviews given by Florestan Fernandes to Eliane Veras Soares, the book features essays on the work of the sociologist from São Paulo, written by the team of researchers committed to organizing and presenting the testimonies, namely: Eliane Veras Soares (project coordinator) , Diogo Valença, Ana Rodrigues Cavalcanti, Aristeu Portela, Lucas Trindade and Remo Mutzenberg.

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