For the memory of Rosa and Sandra

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By ANSELM JAPPE*

Tribute to two recently deceased activists

It would be difficult to define what a “just” person is, but we can give some examples. One of the first names that come to mind is Rosa da Fonseca. And it is with a special sadness that we learned of her death at the age of 73, on June 1st, in Fortaleza. This woman, a warrior by nature, could not defeat cancer. Her inseparable friend, Sandra Helena Freitas, known as Sandrinha, another “fair”, left just a few weeks later: much younger than her friend, she left anyway, due to a cardiac arrest on June 22nd.

The death of two of the most active members of the group radical criticism, headquartered in Fortaleza, is a heavy blow to social criticism. Rosa was one of the best people I've known in my life, a kind and strong figure, warm and unyielding, and above all totally selfless and dedicated only to the struggles she was fighting.

Rosa was born in 1949 in Quixadá, a medium-sized city in the state of Ceará, in the Northeast of Brazil – one of the poorest regions, most marked by oligarchic domination, most afflicted by recurrent droughts, but also one of the richest in their traditions. Her father, Portuguese, had immigrated at the beginning of the century and set up a bakery. Together with his wife, originally from that region, they had several children. Recently, Rosa published an account of her parents' lives. If I had to exemplify the famous common decency, evoked by George Orwell, I could mention the modest and honest life of these people of the working petty bourgeoisie who felt in harmony with their world. It was probably they who transmitted to their daughter the desire to re-establish this harmony in a world where nothing else was harmonious.

This small world was profoundly marked by religion and, from the beginning, Rosa had her education in charge of religious people. Later, it was priests close to the nascent Liberation Theology who, in the mid-1960s, opened their eyes to the social reality of a Brazil then under the command of the military dictatorship. In 1969, Rosa leaves to study Social Sciences at the Federal University of Ceará, in Fortaleza. Growing tension between the protesting students, some of whom turned to armed struggle, and the increasingly brutal military regime dominated the scene.

Rosa joined one of the rare legal student organizations; in it, she took care of sport and confronted the minister of education – a military man – in a televised debate. It was, however, a facade, her real task was to maintain contact with several revolutionary students forced underground. Like many others of her generation, she moved from Catholic engagement (Popular Action) to Marxism-Leninism. Her activities eventually went unnoticed by the police. Rosa was arrested and spent two years in jail, facing numerous tortures.

Despite this, she did not lose courage and even offered support to her fellow prisoners. As soon as she was released, she resumed her revolutionary activities, but this time along an unusual route in the context of her time. Skeptical of the Maoists who believed in the peasants and wanted to start a guerrilla campaign in the countryside, as well as of the “foquistas” who defended armed struggle in the cities, based on the proletariat, she was engaged above all in the communities and with their inhabitants, whose number continued to increase during that period. They are better classified as sub-proletarians and were largely neglected by different Marxist currents at the time.

Meanwhile, Rosa, who had become a teacher, engaged in trade unionism and other “grassroots” struggles, as well as the popular struggles that, in the end, forced the military to relinquish power in 1985. Keeping her distance from a good part of the Brazilian left, she teamed up with her former sociology professor Maria Luiza Fontenele, and a couple who had escaped repression in São Paulo: Célia Zanetti and Jorge Paiva. Together with other militants, a stable core was thus formed and crossed various formations of the left, seeking to progressively break with Leninism and, in the end, with any form of party to constitute, from 2000 onwards, the group radical critique, quite unusual in the Brazilian scenario.

Before getting there, however, in 1986, Maria Luiza Fontenele was elected mayor of Fortaleza – the first woman to run a large Brazilian city and also the first mayoralty won by the Workers' Party (PT). Rosa was elected councilor in 1992. She then had the painful surprise of finding one of her former torturers elected by the right, and accepted the risk of having her mandate suspended when she sought to revoke the mandate of an elected official accused of rape (she was way ahead of its time).

Rosa would have been able, like many others who resisted the dictatorship, to start a brilliant political career, with the great material privileges that are associated with it in Brazil. However, she despised it in order to concentrate, with her comrades, on the only thing that mattered in her eyes: the popular struggles and, above all, the struggle of women, especially against the violence inflicted on them. Rosa founded and presided over several important organizations in Ceará, and I could often see that she was a popular character in Fortaleza, constantly praised in the streets. Ecological struggles also assumed a growing role in the group radical critique, especially through the long occupation of a public park destined to be crossed by a highway and, later, with the founding of a collective site that aimed to achieve food self-sufficiency. Rosa was always the first to arrive, to have a megaphone in hand, to speak loud and strong.

Even so, it was not just about “grassroots” militancy. After gradually moving away from traditional Marxism, the group “discovered”, in the late 1990s, the critique of work – despite its strong roots in certain workers’ unions – by studying the floorplans of Marx and, in sequence, the writings of Robert Kurz and the critique of value. He spread them with real enthusiasm, through seminars and reading groups, not only at the university, where he organized important events and with strong international participation, but also in the most “disadvantaged” circles, distributing a record number of publications. value critique.

Its members proposed to free themselves do work, and no longer release o work. They abandoned all institutional activities and proclaimed, at each election, the “voting strike”. Nowhere in the world has there been such a massive and continuous attempt to associate value criticism with a practical activity. In each engaged struggle, they tried to remember the near and necessary end of capitalism, patriarchy, commodity production and value. Needless to say, such an effort is not always successful, and that there is often a gap between radical theory and the everyday concerns of ordinary people.

What is unforgettable, for those who witnessed it, is the spirit that reigns in the group (which usually numbers a few dozen people), its solidarity, its cohesion, its animation, as well as the love for dance and music that the inhabitants from the Northeast of Brazil consider as their own characteristic, even in the midst of poverty and violence present in the region.

Rosa was always willing to dance. Her smile, however, had something bitter about it – as if she could not forget either the evils of the world or what it had inflicted on her. A form of austerity, inner discipline, her dedication to the cause, were always noticeable in her. Combining enormous kindness with iron convictions and inexhaustible energy, Rosa aimed, both in her life and in her thinking, at what was beyond capitalism.

It took a cancer to bring down his fighting spirit. In her hospital bed, she even recorded a video in which she calls for a demonstration against the “fascist president Bolsonaro”. After her passing, even her political opponents honored her. The city hall has proclaimed three days of “mourning” and there is talk of naming a square after it. I don't know what she would think of such an honor.

Rosa had not started a family, but she was very close to her numerous relatives and maintained an inseparable friendship with Sandrinha, born in 1966, in Fortaleza. Sandrinha was also involved in all fights, in all the initiatives of the radical critique, however less visible, less flamboyant and therefore less known in the city than Rosa. But she was another centerpiece of the group, an irreplaceable element, driven by the same ardor and purity as Rosa.

Thus, Rosa and Sandra joined Célia Zanetti, a cancer victim in January 2018. Less known for public action than Rosa and Maria Luiza, Célia was, however, a pillar of the group, which would not have existed without her . With her husband, Jorge Paiva, they formed a quartet that, supporting each other for decades, carried out this political and intellectual adventure that social critics must always remember.

*Anselm Jappe is a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Sassari, Italy. Author, among other books, of The autophagic society: capitalism, excess and self-destruction. (Elephant).

Translation: Daniel Pavan.

 

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