What to do?

Image: Fidan Nazim qizi


It takes a collective black attitude to bring violent political tensions to society

“How are we staying?” (Lélia Gonzalez).

What to do? – is the name of the novel by Nikolai Chernyshevskii written in Russia in the XNUMXth century.[1] But the expression-question would gain notoriety and would become part of the political and intellectual vocabulary, especially that of the left, throughout the last century only after Vladimir I. Lenin published a book with an identical title in 1902. The question was launched to Russian public debate at the moment of effervescent transition, when socialist militants, workers and peasants would have to respond to the demands of the times.

Lenin's gesture, expressed in the lines of What to do?, was his way, always audacious, of tensioning the discussions (and the action…) that crossed Russian society at the time.[2] It was Leninist stylistics – to say that one could no longer act in a certain way under the peculiar circumstances of the class struggle. In the terms of Alain Badiou: Lenin urged his readers to extract the “real”[3] of reality. I.e; observe with revolutionary dialectical attention the pure surface of presence. Passion for the real. Obsession with appearance that spells it all out. Commitment – ​​not with the complex reality –; but with what happens and with what happened. What to do? was the symbol-issue of the main character of the Russian Revolution of 1917 – at a crucial moment for her country.

Lenin's answer to his own question was the organization of a cadre party, the vanguard, aiming at two dialectically constituted moments: to make the circulation of radical-revolutionary-insurrectional subjectivity acquire greater breadth and meaning; and in the same movement, it had the intention of apprehending the temporality of the spirit of those who would and should present themselves in the political proscenium as the true subject of transformation.

The situation of blacks (workers and poor) in Brazil today; poses the same question. It is the same Leninist gesture of saying that the existence as it is being lived by black men and women, their families, friends and close acquaintances has to be tensioned, challenged with the rational despair of those who can no longer support the daily extermination, the humiliation social, the slaps in the face, the police force against your life, the chronic hunger, the landslides. It takes a collective black attitude to bring violent political tensions to society.

Well, the facts are there for those who want to see. They are concrete and crystalline. Irrefutable. One year after the Jacarezinho massacre, another massacre, this time in Vila Cruzeiro, with practically the same number of deaths. The action is identical. The cruel and merciless shooting of poor black youths carried out by the armed wing of the State. In the same week a black man is exterminated in a gas chamber in Sergipe; Genivaldo had mental health problems – even so, the armed wing of the State (now belonging to the federal sphere) eliminates him, suffocates him without any pretext (and even if there were…) other than race-class hatred, the plan systematic way of combating and exterminating the non-white worker internal enemy. The violence is unspeakable. The pain of those who stayed for 1000 years will not pass. The divine firmament is what can cherish mothers, country and wives; it is the cry of the heart in a heartless world (Marx).[4]

It is true that the advances for sectors of the black population are undeniable. Affirmative action policies are one of the most fundamental achievements in the history of those from below in Brazil (in debate about the recently released book by Vladimir Safatle, just one more effort, Ed. An authentic economist, Leda Paulani states that the structural transformation that the left-wing PT governments carried out only took place in the field of education[5]), and we need to defend it yes-or-yes, until “death”. (And it is still necessary to break the barrier at the level of state professions, such as the teaching career, sometimes blocked by “frauds” in competitions that everyone knows take place, the judiciary, diplomacy, public banks, etc.)

Visibility and greater empathy in the fight against racism cross important sectors of Brazilian society (whites who live with blacks in spaces other than the most miserable, are relatively sensitive to the cause and some are sincere companions in the fight, within their Limits). Black representation advances in private and public spaces of power – there is a black middle class today that makes its immediate projection interests, consumption patterns and cultural distinction echo, mobilizing the “Americanized” expression of anti-racism, as well as the flag of the Black Lives Matter [Black lives matter].

Important intellectuals, male and female writers, researchers and public figures have emerged in the academic-university sector and in the media arena, making the discussions more restless for “white consciences and privileges”.[6] . This whole dynamic is highly positive and has changed the horizon of the fight against racism and racists. In short: there was a process of public-private “institutionalization” of racial sensitivities. (A point we should be aware of concerns the fact that in this same movement we have what Florestan Fernandes called the acephalization of black movements.[7] And the time will come for radical and caustic criticism of him.)

But what should be done that hasn't been tried yet? Here, it is not about what Wendy Brown warned about the subordination of minority “struggles” (which is not the case in Brazil seen from the demographic prism) to legal-institutional resolution regimes, “[progressive] legalism”. entangled in the liberal order, “of not wanting what one cannot not want”[8]. What is urgent is human rights, fair and impartial investigation, state control of the police, public policies to combat inequality and justice applied by an attentive judiciary that responds to society.

However, this is a question that all black men and women had to ask themselves on a daily basis: and many certainly do; many already self-reflect; many can no longer bear to live and see their loved ones killed by the murderous police that have had a single purpose since colonial times (sharpened in the years of fascistization of the Bolsonaro government and the rise of the intransigent right since 2014 with its most prominent characters at the forefront: Moro, Kataguiri, Arthur do Val, Paulo Guedes, Allan dos Santos, MBL, Jovem Pan, Von Mises Institute, frustrated middle class, state and federal police, Olavo de Carvalho, financier and agribusiness bourgeoisies and how much), the violent defense of order and the interests of the dominant white elite (from all sectors, economic, political, social, cultural, media) – and for that it has to go to the hills and slaughter black and mixed-race teenagers ; he has to watch the peripheral neighborhoods with his vehicles (the fatal echo of summer vacations in the dark days of the civil-military-business dictatorship) and search and attack young people who are armed only with their swing, the PSG shirt (Neymar's 10), in Havaiana flip-flops and some based on the bermuda bag; many and many do not want to watch any more reports (which always subliminally defend state assassins) reporting yet another child killed by police boots, yet another young mother shot by a war rifle and of the latest generation carried by those who rejoice in the knife-in-the- skull as a symbol pinned on their uniforms.

Insisting on Wendy Brown's formulation, it is not about “not wanting what one cannot not want”; it so happens that the ways in which we are waging the fight, the fight against racism that eliminates blacks with Eichmannian naturalness and coldness,[9] not being enough for those who need it most.

There is a working black nation that wants and needs the expression-question to be able to see an answer. We are not “yet” in the context where “what is to be done?” was answered in the terms we know – the organization-action of the political subject for the revolutionary overthrow of the oppressive powers in Russia (and I could list here other moments when the question was answered as in Haiti by Toussaint Louverture and CRL James, in Algeria by Fanon, in Palmares de Zumbi, in the organization of Black Panthers in the United States).

But Chernyshevsky-Lenin's historical questioning (and Lélia Gonzalez's provocation… in the epigraph) made explicit one of the aspects of that moment – ​​that of despair. So in the book two revolutions,[10] which organizes Lenin's texts and interventions in 1917 and a play-text by Brecht, A rozhodão, at one point the organizer (via Lenin) states: the people were desperate, the revolution was an imposed and forced consequence. We black men and women are desperate; and it's been a long time... How are we staying? and What to do?

*Ronaldo Tadeu de Souza is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Political Science at USP.



[1] See Nikolai Chernyshevsky. What to do? Popular Expression, 2015.

[2] See Vladimir Ilich Lenin. What to do?

[3] Alain Badiou. One Divides Itself into Two. In: Sebastian Budgen, Stathis Kouvelakis and Slavoj Zizek. Lenin Reloaded. Duke University Press, 2007, p. 15.

[4] See Karl Marx. Introduction to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right.

[5] See discussion in the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EF-n89x008k

[6] Here I put it in quotation marks as a warning for not agreeing with the notion; that comes from the theory of whiteness, or at the same time gained relevance and systematization in the Brazilian debate from it. Still, it seems to me useful for the conceptual-methodological arrangement in qualitative sociological and psychological research on racism.

[7] See Florestan Fernandes. The meaning of black protest. Cortez Publishers, 1989.

[8] Wendy Brown. Introduction and Suffering the Paradoxes of Right. In: Wendy Brown and Janet Halley. Left Legalism/Left Critque. Duke University Press, 2002, pp. 1 to 37 and pp. 420 to 434.

[9] See Hannah Arendt. Eichmann in Jerusalem: an account of the banality of evil. Company of Letters, 2006.

[10] See Iná Camargo Costa. Lenin and Brecht-Two Revolutions. Popular Expression, 2020.

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