The fear of falling symbols

Image: Sebastian Sorensen


The reconstruction of the past, and based on memory, is done in good measure to respond to the challenges posed by the class struggle in the present

One might even question whether the attempt to demolish the statue of Borba Gato, on July 24, at the same time as the national day of struggle for Fora Bolsonaro was taking place, would have been the most appropriate moment. One can even question the “carbonari” if they had enough organization to hold back the reaction of the repressive apparatuses of the State after such a daring gesture. But under no circumstances can the act itself be condemned.

However, from the right to even certain sectors of the left, there was no lack of voices condemning the gesture of the militants of the organization Revolution Periférica. One of its most prominent members is Paulo Galo, a militant of the Anti-Fascist Deliverers movement and who personifies the precarious condition of the Brazilian worker today. The right did not miss the opportunity and accused the gesture of burning the statue of a terrorist act. Among the left, the menu of condemnations was more varied. There were those who saw in the attitude a provocative and cool act of mobilization greater than what happened at the same moment on Avenida Paulista. This was the case of Gilberto Maringoni, when he decreed that it was an “act of pure vandalism”, when contrasting it with the “peaceful protest demonstrations” of the “democratic sectors”[I]. Complementing the accusation, the PCO, through its leader Rui Cosa Pimenta, accused the organizers of the act of belonging to the identity petty-bourgeois left.

Eric Hobsbawm, in his book The Age of Revolutions, when indicating why the fall of the Bastille triggered the French Revolution, explains that “In times of revolution nothing is more powerful than the fall of symbols”[ii]. Does the attempt to burn the statue of Borba Gato represent a sign that revolutionary times are approaching in our country? Does the attempt, by not achieving the intended success, not demonstrate that a revolt against the mega-exploited condition of the people has been gestating, but that it is still incapable of achieving full success? If these hypotheses are correct, would those on the left who condemned the act then want to stop this process? Would not the condemnation of the gesture of burning a symbol of the exploitation and colonial domination of our people be a surreptitious manifestation that these sectors continue to bet on a project of class conciliation?

It never hurts to remember that the reconstruction of the past, and based on memory, is done in good measure to respond to the challenges posed by the class struggle in the present. In this sense, in the context of a society divided into antagonistic social classes, statues and monuments are erected as a representation of the past, but executed by men of the present. The rescue of the past serves to reinforce a project for the future.

In this sense, for the dominant classes, statues and monuments define a collective identity that anchors and justifies, in a remote past, the process of exploitation and domination in the present time. For this purpose, an intertemporal narrative is constructed that connects the past, present and future in the same continuum. If the present and the future are marked by a relationship of exploitation, the ruling class cannot be expected to worship precisely those who, in the past, represented some form of resistance to this exploitation.

It is surprising that sectors of the left, seized with apparent historical amnesia, decided to defend a symbol of slavery and colonization. We want to believe that the intention is not exactly that. What would be behind this defense of Borba Gato, and the memory of the bandeirantes, is the defense, in the current Brazilian context, of a project that resumes the class conciliation program with which the PT ruled the country for 13 years. Nothing more than this. But as this debate is covered by the historical role of the bandeirantes, we feel obliged to clarify that these historical characters cannot be assumed by the working people as their heroes. Let's see.

in your book The Blacks of the Earth[iii], John M. Monteiro indicates that the plateau of São Paulo, throughout the XNUMXth century, played an important role in the colonial economy. It supplied the Northeast and Rio de Janeiro with wheat, whose lands were dedicated exclusively to the cultivation of sugar cane to serve the foreign market. For this reason, in the São Paulo plateau, a wheat production aimed at serving the domestic market was formed based on the same tripod as sugarcane production in the Northeast: latifundia, slavery and monoculture. It is in this context that the bandeirantes, at the time known only as “Paulistas”, had a very well defined role in the structure of the Brazilian slave-colonial mode of production. They penetrated the forests and penetrated the interior of the vast continent to capture indigenous people and subject them to slavery in their own territorial domains.

But in addition to enslaving Brazilian natives, the bandeirantes, under the leadership of Domingos Jorge Velho, played a fundamental role in the destruction and massacre of the quilombolas of Palmares. This, yes, was at its time a political and social experience much more advanced than slave production. Non-slave labor and the reigning polyculture ensured, in the middle of the XNUMXth century, the existence of a relatively egalitarian society and an unprecedented abundance of food in the captaincy of Pernambuco, invariably plagued by famines. That's why Palmares attracted to its territory not only enslaved blacks who fled from captivity, but also indigenous people and poor whites.

It is important to consider that before attacking Palmares, a service for which he was hired at a premium by the then governor of Pernambuco, Caetano de Melo e Castro, Domingos Jorge Velho headed for the current state of Rio Grande do Norte. He went there to quell the indigenous rebellion of the Cariri Confederation. Tired of being converted into slaves and seeing their lands plundered by the Portuguese colonizers, the indigenous people kept up the war against the invaders for 30 years. That's why in your classic Palmares, The Slave War, Décio Freitas masterfully defines that “The bandeirantes were therefore a shock force at the service of Portuguese colonialism, and nothing else” (p. 152)[iv].

Historical sources demonstrate how the bandeirantes were a fundamental part in the perpetuation of a colonial structure based on enslavement, large estates and monoculture. There is no way to assign them, therefore, a progressive role in Brazilian history, as the ex-communist Aldo Rabelo wants, who adhered to political reactionaryism. Adhesion that earned him praise even from Brazilian fascists, when he was cited as a “leftist” who proclaimed “the need to do justice to the bandeirantes”[v]. Another who seeks to identify a progressive role in the bandeirante legacy is Trotskyist Rui Costa Pimenta, the main public figure of the PCO. The latter, in his emphatic criticism of the burning of the statue, evoked as a justification for the defense of the bandeirantes their status as “Paulistas and Paulistanos”, placing them above their status as communists. Rui Costa goes so far as to transform the bandeirantes into leaders of the anti-imperialist struggle, since the great Brazilian territorial extension would have been achieved thanks to the bandeirantes, which made it difficult for imperialism to dominate Brazil.

In addition to the anachronism in the use of the concept of imperialism, developed by Lenin to highlight the emergence of a higher stage of capitalism at the beginning of the 4th century, there is a crass political error. It is to consider that the territorial extension of a country would make it more or less threatened by domination and exploitation by imperialism. British India had a territory of approximately 100 million square kilometers. This did not prevent the country from being plundered over 209.331 years by British colonialism, a country with XNUMX square kilometers. Another example was that of China, whose gigantic territory did not prevent the country from being divided and humiliated by the European imperialist powers and Japan, between the end of the XNUMXth century and the beginning of the XNUMXth century.

In both cases, a decisive aspect that facilitated the colonization of these countries was the alliance between imperialist capital and factions of the local ruling classes. As well as the use of what in India became known as sepoys, that is, Hindus who served the troops of the British West India Company. The fact is that all colonization processes took advantage of the internal divisions and rivalries of the colonized people. The same was observed in Brazil. It is important to remember this fact, because the effort to minimize the role of bandeirantes in the colonial structure is to present them as authentically national mestizos, whose troops were even made up of indigenous people. But this does not change the role they played in maintaining the colonial structure.

For Décio Freitas, this result of the “Paulistas” raids through the hinterland, devastating villages and enslaving thousands of indigenous people, had no direct consequence on the Brazilian territorial expansion. Others would have been the reasons for having reached such size, as well as the guarantee of our political unity, in the form of a monarchical regime after Independence. The main one, for Jacob Gorender[vi], was the need to maintain the slave-owning relation of production. Maintaining a vast territory under a single political center, preventing its fractionation, served the interests of the slave trade, one of the most lucrative businesses at the time. At the same time, the political unity of the continental territory, in opposition to republican and federalist proposals, represented an obstacle to the appearance of provinces that could abolish slave labor and began to serve as an attraction for captives from slave provinces.

This colonial economic and political structure, maintained even after the conquest of Independence, was decisive in boosting coffee production in the province of São Paulo in the XNUMXth century. The São Paulo farmer dedicated to planting coffee was, above all, a slave owner. It did not represent, as certain historiography suggests, an element that drove the complete modernization of the country's relations of production. São Paulo coffee growers, including those from the so-called Oeste Novo, who are believed to have a proto-bourgeois conscience, were slaveholders until the last moments before Abolition. It was only when the enslaved, in alliance with the abolitionists, promoted a mass movement to escape from the slave quarters, that the coffee farmers, fearing a generalized revolt, were forced to manumission their captives. It was the enslaved and an urban popular mass who represented, in Brazil, a factor in the modernization of production relations, being the political and social force that directed the bourgeois revolution in Brazil.

What we want to show, with this passage apparently detached from the debate on the “rehabilitation of bandeirante movement”, is that all the civilizing advances in our country were the result of the struggles of the popular sectors. In the case of Abolition it was no different. This is what Robert Conrad's studies show very well.[vii] and Ronaldo Marcos dos Santos[viii]. If it were up to the slavers, including the coffee growers, with their proposals that postponed complete abolition to a remote future, Brazil would enter the XNUMXth century with a still significant mass of enslaved people. Coffee growers who were responsible, through their organic intellectuals, for creating in the XNUMXth century the mythology of the indomitable pioneer and trailblazer, anchoring in the remote past the justification for the development of the economy of São Paulo. The wealth of São Paulo coffee growers would result more from a genetic trait than from particular historical conditions, mainly slavery and the large-scale supply of a product with strong demand in the central capitalist countries.

Faced with indisputable historical facts, how can one explain that sectors of the left become staunch defenders of the bandeirante cause? Historical ignorance? It is true that the Brazilian left reflects, to a great extent, the cultural and political level of our people. Thus, it thrives even among militant segments and politicized sayings, a great lack of knowledge about the country's history. Therefore, the criticism of the arson act, already indicated at the beginning of this text, serves more the current interests that seek to rescue a project of class conciliation. And for that, a historical narrative is needed that reconciles the exploited and the exploiters, be they from the past or from the present.

The catastrophe represented by the Bolsonaro government for the majority of our people makes the electorate, lacking an alternative capable of embracing a national and democratic project of a socialist character, a growing trend of support for Lula's candidacy. The former president, not wanting to be asked, makes an effort to build a policy of alliances with factions of finance capital. The fruit of this effort can be seen in the statement by Delfim Netto, who emphatically stated that “Bolsonaro is at risk for the market, not Lula”[ix]. At the same time, Lula focuses on sectors of parties linked to Centrão, in an attempt to attract them to support his candidacy and split the Bolsonarist base. All of these moves by Lula signal to the market that, if elected, he will not interfere with the interests of big capital, especially finance. And in the increasingly plausible hypothesis of his victory in 2022, if no sudden changes postpone or prevent the election, we will have a government of class conciliation even more downgraded than the one that won the polls in 2002.

It is in this context that the attempt to burn the statue of Borba Gato, a symbol of colonial oppression, scares sectors of the left that are betting on a project of class conciliation. The criticism of the act of the Peripheral Revolution movement is to prevent any type of radicalization that gets out of control and jeopardizes the policy of broad, general and unrestricted alliance that Lula set out to build. This is the background to all this idle talk of rescuing the role of bandeirantes as builders of nationality, among other nonsense and anachronisms.

*Renato Nucci Jr. is an activist of the communist organization Arma da Crítica.



[ii] HOBSBAWN, Eric, The Age of Revolutions, Rio de Janeiro, Paz e Terra, 2000.

[iii] MONTEIRO, John M., Os Negros da Terra, São Paulo, Companhia das Letras, 1994.

[iv] FREITAS, Décio, Palmares, the Slave War, Rio de Janeiro, Grail, 1978.


[vi] GORENDER, Jacob, Rehabilitated Slavery, São Paulo, Popular Expression and Perseu Abramo Foundation, 2016.

[vii] CONRAD, Robert, The Last Years of Slavery in Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, Civilização Brasileira, 1975.

[viii] SANTOS, Ronaldo Marcos dos, Resistance and Overcoming of Slavery in the Province of São Paulo (1885-1888), São Paulo, Institute of Economic Research, 1980.


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