Four times Florestan



Comments on four books by the sociologist from São Paulo


Folklore and social change in the city of São Paulo brings together some of the first articles by Florestan Fernandes, many of them the result of semester evaluation work, when he attended the sociology course at USP in the early 1940s. The intellectual qualification of these texts, as well as the unusual effort and dedication, distinguished the young Florestan from his classmates, paving the way for the recognition of French masters and the career he began as assistant to Fernando de Azevedo. Edited separately between 1942 and 1959, the articles were collected in a book in 1961.

The folkloric material analyzed in the book was collected by Florestan in the first years of graduation, in an almost self-taught way. Then, under the guidance of Roger Bastide and Emílio Willems, he refined his empirical procedures as well as his scientific analysis. It is convenient to clarify the famous phrase in the “Previous Explanation” that places the work “halfway between folklore and sociology”. If, on the one hand, the book rescues material “in an advanced process of disintegration”, compiling everything from nursery rhymes to sayings and proverbs, its concern to demonstrate the pertinence of the sociological explanation of this material stands out.

The combination of empirical research and methodological reflection – characteristic of the first phase of Florestan's career – acquires in Folklore and social change in the city of São Paulo a very precise meaning. In addition to replacing the amateurism prevailing in folklore studies with methodological and conceptual rigor, Florestan intends to incorporate this material as a subject proper to a discipline endowed with intrinsic autonomy, sociology.

The investigation thus focuses on the “sociodynamic influences” of São Paulo folklore. A task unfolded in the analysis of three questions: (a) the role of folklore in children's socialization, its potential in learning a complex social experience; (b) folklore as a factor of social control, facilitating the “perpetuation of moods and attitudes that ensure the effectiveness of the normal means of social control”; (c) the function of folklore in the reintegration of social heritage, a link between present and past capable of disciplining changes and facilitating the “preservation of social values ​​that must not be destroyed”.

In addition to the functionalist approach, the methodology explicitly adopted by the author, the book, starting with the title, is permeated by several antagonisms. How to situate folklore, by definition, a collection of “persistent and visible elements of certain forms of social action”, in a city whose dynamism engenders “social processes adverse to stability and perpetuation”?

It is not just a question of incorporating folklore as another subject that can be explained sociologically. It also makes an effort to adjust the focus on the counterface of the modernization process to elucidate the pace of social change, the constitution of the urban world and the formation of class society in Brazil. The subject of folklore is thus subsumed under the themes of the “sociology of modernization”.

In the itinerary described by Florestan, in recent decades, “the cultural evolution of the city […] represents a long process of disintegration of popular culture”. Urbanization, intensified from the last quarter of the XNUMXth century onwards, weakened “patrimonial relations”, encouraging “secularization and rationalization of ways of acting and thinking”. The diagnosis converges to a popular culture in crisis, impoverished and unable to be renewed and revitalized in the dynamic center of modernity.

This assessment did not fail to contribute to the persistent distrust of São Paulo sociology – and of almost all of USP's intelligence – in relation to the cultural and political experiences of the “national-popular” project. Florestan's skepticism about the conditions for permanence of popular culture within the Brazilian modernization process marked, to a large extent, the repeated criticisms of the artistic practices promoted by the UNE's CPCs in the pre-64 period and their consequences after the military coup in cinema , popular music, theater, etc.


The Bourgeois Revolution in Brazil (1974) is one of the classic books of Brazilian historical sociology, a lineage that has its high moments in Casa Grande & Senzala (1933), by Gilberto Freyre; Brazil roots (1936), by Sérgio Buarque de Holanda and The Owners of Power (1958), by Raymundo Faoro.

Florestan employs the concept of “bourgeois revolution” as an “ideal type”, that is, as a heuristic principle and investigative thread of the origin, nature and developments of capitalism in Brazil. This is not an empirical study or even a comparison of the vicissitudes of the Brazilian process with the French, English or North American models of revolution. The absence of a succession of impact events, of a revolution itself, did not prevent the development of capitalism in Brazil, but dictated its own pace and a particular condition. The idea of ​​bourgeois revolution thus lends itself like a glove to determine the stages of the process and, above all, to understand the predominant type of capitalism in the country.

The book was written at different times: the first two parts (“The Origins of the Bourgeois Revolution” and “The Formation of the Competitive Social Order”) in 1966, and the third part (“Bourgeois Revolution and Dependent Capitalism”) in 1974 This last essay complements the other blocks, advancing to the present the previous historical accompaniment, which stopped at the time of the abolition of slavery. But it also brings some relevant changes regarding the attribution of meaning to the historical process.

The 1966 essays follow traditional periodization. Independence paved the way for the emergence of bourgeois sociability – either as a type of personality or as a social formation –, blocked until then by the combination of colonial status, slavery and large export crops. The simple break with the colonial condition, political autonomy engenders a “national situation” that develops commerce and urban life, underpins the State and prepares for modernization.

The maintenance of the slave system, however, polarized the country between a heteronomous structure (whose prototype is the large export crop) and an autonomizing dynamic (centered on the internal market). Socially, the bourgeois agents, in symbiosis with the prevailing framework, organize themselves more as an “estate” than as a class, a situation that will only be broken with the emergence of the “immigrant” and the “coffee farmer” on the agricultural frontier.

The introduction of salaried work and the consolidation of the “competitive economic order” at the end of the 19th century did not completely release the potential of bourgeois rationality. Rather, they promoted an accommodation of opposing economic forms, generating a hybrid society and a social formation, “dependent capitalism”, marked by the coexistence and interconnection of the archaic and the modern.

In the last essay, written in 1974, the concept of “dependent capitalism” becomes determined by the association of the bourgeoisie with international capital. With this, the weight of the dynamics of the world capitalist system and the periodization itself change, marked by the emergence and expansion of three types of capitalism: the modern (1808-1860), the competitive (1860-1950) and the monopolist (1950). -…).

The bourgeois revolution would have led Brazil, therefore, to the “capitalist transformation”, but not to the expected “national and democratic revolution”. In the absence of a definitive rupture with the past, this exacts its price at every moment of the process, generally in the key of a “conciliation” that presents itself as a denial or neutralization of the reform. The monopolization of the State by the bourgeoisie – both economic, social and political – would be at the root of the autocratic model, of the “restricted democracy” that marks the Brazilian XNUMXth century.

It would be a serious mistake, however, to attribute some form of determinism to this diagnosis. The double character of the concepts, the contradictions that Florestan detects at every step, in short, the dialectic as a method leaves the field free for the historical action of agents and social classes.

The Bourgeois Revolution in Brazil closes the cycle of general interpretations of the country. But, at the same time, it provided the framework for a series of subsequent specific studies that addressed decisive topics such as the resistance of those “from below” before and during the emergence of classes, changes in the status of nations in the world-system or the ruptures in the pattern of accumulation under capitalism.


The Necessary Contestation – a posthumous book, organized while Florestan was still alive – seeks to establish a balance of the theoretical and practical successes and failures of the socialist political struggle in Brazil, at a time when, according to him, the globalization of the economy and the transformations of the State provoked “questions about the roles of intellectuals in social movements or about the fate of their production”.

The work brings together profiles of intellectuals and political activists – mostly circumstantial articles – articulated, with long justifying introductions, in three blocks: “The intellectual and the radicalization of ideas”, “Radical political practice” and “Educational Reform”. Two things immediately call the reader's attention: Lula's inclusion in the first block and the absence of his former assistants who rose to power in 1994.

Relying on the concept created by Gramsci of the “organic intellectual”, Florestan privileges in Lula above all “the worker as an inventor of ideas”, which goes well with the meaning of the PT leader's profile. Centered on his life story – essentially similar to that of Florestan himself: victory over the vicissitudes of poverty and commitment to the suppression of barbarism –, it seeks to show how, despite brutal class domination, the exploited sectors generate, through of a complex process of rebellion, its defenders. In turn, the non-inclusion of Lula among the radical politicians is due to the indecisions of the PT trajectory that Florestan never ceases to point out.

There is no reference to the absence of his former assistants, except for one sentence – explaining why Lula did not get there – which says it all: “On both occasions [1989 and 1994] the maneuvers that removed him from occupying the presidency involved manipulations by parties of order and the owners of economic power, typical of the most acute clientelism”.

Throughout the profiles, a meditation on the conditions and limits of a radical political practice in Brazil is outlined. We have, in a first model, the case of the unbreakable political integrity of individuals that can only be explained by factors of a psychological nature, helpless as they are supported by a strong collective movement. This is the case of Trotskyists like Hermínio Sacchetta, who introduced Florestan to political militancy.

A second peculiar situation is that of Luís Carlos Prestes who, instead of going, as was usual in the international movement, from communism to revolution, “jumped from revolution to communism”. The rebel, broken with his class and already engaged in armed struggle, had to conform to the strict framework of a party and an organization of the incipient working class. The third model, personified by Lula, is that of the worker taken by the advancement in workers' organization, successively to the status of union leader and political leader.

Among the many “findings” of sociological or theoretical scope present in these profiles, I highlight just one. Commenting on Richard Morse's book on São Paulo, Florestan – against the grain of the progressive Enlightenment that associates chronological maturity, or even complexity, with autonomy – warns of the fact that, since in Brazilian history the most important is determined “from from the outside”, “the community came to have a greater amount of self-determination (mainly in the periphery of our colonial world) than society (or the metropolis)”.


In Search of Socialism it brings together newspaper articles, book presentations, interviews and even course texts, all unified by an exclusively Marxist perspective or theme. Most texts seek, in affinity with the intellectual tradition of Marxism, to overcome the specializations and division of labor typical of bourgeois knowledge. Aside from small slips like calling Marx a “social scientist” or lamenting that Caio Prado Jr. had not deepened into sociology, Florestan's effort to overcome his previous concern with the delimitation of sociology as an autonomous science is evident.

In this sense, his 1946 introduction to the book Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy of Marx - reproduced in this In Search of Socialism – is exemplary. If then Marxism already was, as Antonio Candido reminds us (“Revista Praxis”, v. 5), an “underground river”, the bias under which it is presented – in a Weberian way as a solution to the antinomy between naturalistic and historical method – it is still part of Florestan's effort to master all the techniques and methodologies prevailing in the social sciences.

The passage from academic to militant, from scholar to the publicist, in addition to making his text more fluent and readable, which acquires a markedly didactic trait, it also completely changes his theoretical and bibliographical interests.

In the section dedicated to presentations of the classics of Marxism, the political approach under which he ends the texts on Marx already foreshadows the emphasis on the question of the conquest of power, of the revolution, which brings him closer to the work of Lenin. Thus continues, on a smaller scale, the undertaking begun with the introductions to volumes Marx/Engels e Lenin from the Great Social Scientists Collection (volumes 5 and 36, Attica), later assembled in the volume Marx, Engels, Lenin: history in process (Popular Expression).

The depth of Florestan's understanding of Marxism can only be gauged within the framework of his interpretation of the specificity of Brazilian society. The Marxism-Leninism to which he recognizes himself as a tributary explains, however, the limitations of his vision of the history of socialism. It is amazing that his presentation of The State and the Revolution do not mention that this book by Lenin – and the conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat detailed therein – was the pivot of a long controversy over the (non)democratic character of the Soviet State in which, among others, Karl Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg were involved. Or to take as a basis for assessing what was happening in the USSR in 1989 only the book by … Mikhail Gorbachev.

If he couldn't understand what was happening out there, his understanding of the Brazilian historical present was, however, more and more acute. A good example is his diagnosis of the crisis that emerged in the Workers' Party with the electoral defeat of 1994. According to him, in recent years and especially in the 1994 presidential election, there was a political and ideological shift from the PT to the center. An attempt was made to win over the more conservative segments of the middle classes instead of disputing the vote of the “rabble”.

In Florestan's words: “The comrades who most need the PT were left to the appetite and insensitivity of the demagogy of power, which promises everything in order not to lose the elections and does nothing! It was the only time I felt disturbed as a PT member, as I found that the Eurocentric political culture against the lumpen and the uprooted found shelter in the tropics, under the redemptive banner of the PT” (pp. 244-45). In addition to the righteous indignation of an intellectual from the popular classes, it is worth highlighting the pertinence of indicating the political line that, when adopted by the PT, guaranteed him four presidential terms.

*Ricardo Musse is professor of sociology at USP.


Florestan Fernandes. Folklore and social change in the city of São Paulo. Sao Paulo, Martins Fontes, 2004.

Florestan Fernandes. The Bourgeois Revolution in Brazil. São Paulo, Countercurrent, 2020.

Florestan Fernandes. The Necessary Response. Intellectual portraits of nonconformists and revolutionaries. Sao Paulo, Attica, 1995.

Florestan Fernandes. In Search of Socialism. Latest Writings & Other Texts.

São Paulo, Xamã, 1995.


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