On the Role of the Middle Classes and Critical Press in Political Struggle

original em português

Ruy Fausto
translation by Justin Greene

Amid the discussions we’ve had regarding Brazil’s current political situation and possible forms of intervention, two interrelated but distinct problems appear, which, I believe, deserve to be better discussed.

Both pertain to the present moment, but they can also have a much broader temporal and spatial scope. One of them, more universal, is the role the middle classes and, especially, the intelligentsia can play in resisting bolsonarismo. The other is the significance that the critical (written, spoken, digital) press can have within this process. As I see it, the role each can play in both cases is currently being underestimated, in this context and also beyond it.

The Marxist tradition and, along with it, the interests of bureaucratized managements (of political parties, unions, etc.) tend to immediately stigmatize the role of the intellectual. “It’s something intellectual.” Or, “he’s an intellectual, not a party leader.” It’s something heard so often (at least I’ve heard it a lot). What is more serious, intellectuals [a intelectualidade], influenced by the hegemonic tradition of the left and neutralized by bureaucracy, tend to assume this sort of diagnosis. Behind this modesty of someone wanting to give voice to the people is a defeatist and negative attitude.

The first point. What is the numerical weight of the intelligentsia in Brazil? I don’t know for sure, but I think ten or fifteen million. It seems small for a population of over two hundred million, but in reality it’s a lot of people. In comparison, the core supporters of Bolsonaro — I mean, the “irreducible” — must be more or less the same in number. And the noise they make. For those supposing this is a small and ineffective quantity, just think that a conscious and active group of ten million is, in theory, capable of rallying a million people to protest in the streets. Some think that street protests also do not matter. However, for such a protest (or even much smaller ones) to be possible, the intelligentsia must be mobilized, aware, and, in a certain sense, organized. And here I turn to the second problem. What role can the written, spoken, or digital press (I am mainly looking at the digital press, for obvious reasons) play in this mobilization?

Some think that this role, while “interesting,” can only be secondary. Serious political stuff would take place elsewhere. Once again, the weight of tradition and the rough play of bureaucrats. Look at the facts. In France, the satirical newspaper Le Canard enchaîné simply tanked the candidacy of the ultra-liberal François Fillon, who was practically elected, by revealing a dubious affaire of providing fictional jobs for the benefit of his own family. Of course, Macron, also a liberal, won in his place. But the mere fact of having incapacitated the chances of someone who virtually appeared to be president-elect is already telling. And if Macron is a liberal and not a centrist, he does not reach the level of fanaticism of Fillon, who was even considering eliminating social security. Here in Brazil, has enough thought been given to the role played by The Intercept’s reports, revealing what happened behind the scenes with Lava Jato, laying bare the juridically farcical character of certain trials, in the context of Brazilian politics? If there is nothing easy about the situation today, where would we be without The Intercept’s revelations? I don’t know, but Moro would continue being idolized and have a “spotless” reputation (in reality, many still idolize him, but his reputation has been tarnished). Bolsonaro, in turn, would be more secure than he is now, and so on. And, you see, it was the work of an agency, exemplary work that profoundly altered the situation, even if it couldn’t bring down the Bolsonaro administration or all the campaigns against the left. It’s good not to lose sight of this example, of journalists and intellectuals whose actions have been more effective than the activities of many party. Without question, this is a news report, and one could ask if the example allows for greater generalization.

The press work of intellectuals, it is said, often cannot reach the general population, due to the very low level of the Brazilian public, which is strongly attached to prejudices, mainly religious ones. Here, we get into the problem of not only the importance of the critical press’s role in resistance, but also the character that these publications should have. The idea of intellectuals being radically impotent in political matters leads to the privileging of a “light” style: articles dealing with current events and watered-down reportage and nothing “heavier,” because the Brazilian public wouldn’t consume such a thing. My position goes against this, making clear from the start, however, that one thing need not exclude another and, further, that the message must be made in various registers. I would say that, “light” critical productions (short, eventually ironic articles), which are useful and necessary, are not what is lacking in Brazil. Every day we have batches of writing like this that — I insist — have played a very important role in the raising the critical awareness of the intelligentsia and general public. However, publications of this type are not what is lacking. Rather, it is in-depth analyses of a simultaneously political and theoretical nature, which are presented in articles that might be — even if not necessarily — of a respectable size. This is what we lack most. Not that this type of writing is absent from our (printed, spoken, or digital) media landscape.

A good example worth mentioning is the magazine Piauí. Its editors have the courage to publish long texts, which the Brazilian public allegedly couldn’t absorb. Everything leads us to believe it does. There is great value in Piauí’s work. It is, however, a single publication. There would need to be more than one. What specific role does this style of work have, particularly in thinking about Brazil’s current political situation? In my opinion, it represents one, if not the, essential piece of the struggle for hegemony. Not all of us are aware of this, but, for at least two or three decades, there has been a fierce struggle for hegemony between the left (and democrats in general), on one side, and the right (more specifically the far right), on the other. Until now, the far right has been largely winning this fight. And why is that? Because the far right, unlike the left, does not underestimate ideological struggle. It takes this seriously. We do not. (Of course, the instruments of this struggle, depending on the side, are different: the far right uses mythology, sophistry, fallacy, and mystification, while we, in principle, simply aim for the truth. But, in both cases, it is a fight of ideas — adopting the term, as is appropriate here, in its most general sense, which even includes Olavo de Carvalho’s “ideas.”) It is necessary to become aware of what this means.

I now return to the objection I mentioned earlier: the Brazilian public is lagging too far behind and overly imbued with prejudices, above all religious ones, to be interested in this type of publication. Response: part of the public, specifically the intelligentsia, is certainly able to read this sort of thing, provided, of course, that the author strives to employ clear language without useless effects and without unnecessary complications (yes, because necessary complications, those within the object, must certainly remain) on the level of content. But this kind of work does not exclude — on the contrary, it demands — another, which would come from the immediate data of a country like Brazil’s popular consciousness. For example, and it is more than an example: we must give voice to Christian sectors (Protestant and Catholic, as well as Orthodox), which do not commune with Bolsonaro and his clan. Democratically inclined Christianity is not small in demographic terms. It must be in the majority in Brazil (to legitimize his plans for a coup in the right’s populist style, Olavo de Carvalho likes to say the majority is with them, because he is Christian. Christian, sure, but that does not mean neofascist. In general, the theme of Bolsonaro embodying anti-Christianity, which is not at all demagogical — it is pure, objective truth — must be elaborated. So do the “merchants from the temple.” In the Bible, they appear at the temple’s door, seeming to exchange money. Today, they are inside, handling millions, with their credit cards crossing hymnals and sacred texts. Finally, besides theoretical work, intellectuals must make a substantial effort to help ensure the expression of the best popular voice: the voice of the people, Christian or otherwise — generally, Christian — who do not subscribe to the new authoritarianisms and irrationalisms. (The religious man is not necessarily irrational, as we know.)

In conclusion. We must value the role of the middle class, in particular that of the intelligentsia (without forgetting that there is an irredeemable fascistic wing, but also another that oscillates), publishing well-founded texts that are able to score decisive points in the left’s fight for hegemony. In the same movement, we will open ourselves to work with the best of the popular democratic forces, including, and even privileging, given their importance, the Christian ones.

To have an idea of the role that intellectuals, and particularly a publication, can play in the political situation of a country or the world, and to remind us how humility and bad faith can be defeatist and negative, I remember, to conclude, a celebrated historical example, that of the magazine Socialisme ou barbarie, which was published in France for around a decade (from the 1950s to the late 1960s) and led by Cornelius Castoriadis and Claude Lefort. Castoriadis and Lefort had been militants, but were no longer. They were, in fact, intellectuals — great intellectuals — and university professors, for the magazine was willing to face not only the right, but also the leaders of the left, of the communist parties in particular. Evidently, they were met with a hail of bullets, enemies attacks and “friendly” fire, if that term can be employed. I won’t say it was Socialisme ou barbarie that defeated Leninist and Stalinist communism. This defeat came about in more than one way, including the mobilization of Polish workers. (The 1956 Hungarian Revolution, in which the intelligentsia substantially participated, also contributed to the downfall of “communism,” though it had been defeated; and in the list of examples of the intelligentsia’s participation in this process, one could even cite the major role played by the movement led by the Czech dramaturg Vaclav Havel, who became president of his country.) But it is certain that the magazine Socialisme ou barbarie had a specific part in the process of the decomposition of “communism.” The main leader of the 1968 Protests in France, moreover, recognized that magazine’s role. Somewhat imperceptibly, it was read by many people and shaped an entire generation. Of course, it had an exceptional pair of editors. But that is not the deciding factor. I am convinced that, mutatis mutandis, Brazil needs a magazine like Socialisme ou barbarie. Do we lack qualified people? False. If we don’t have a slew of competent critics, we have “a handful,” and, proportionately speaking, highly qualified people. These “people” need to become aware of the function they are performing and, more than this, of the role they will be able to play. Thinking and writing are no less influential than acting in parliament or protesting in the street. Unfortunately, this latter aspect is overly privileged. Without underestimating it, however, I believe that our destiny, the destiny of the democratic left and the country, in reality depends on these three vertices: the struggle in the streets, parliamentary struggle, and the labor of the critical and theoretical press, together with critical instruction in the University (as opposed to proselytization). The importance of what is done in the University can be evaluated by the fury with which the far right strikes against it.

“On the Role of the Middle Classes and Critical Press in Political Struggle”, by Ruy Fausto

A Translation and Introduction

Flavia Ocaranza

On the Role of the Middle Classes and Critical Press in Political Struggle” was originally going to be published in issue 1.2 of Rosa. However, Ruy Fausto, its author and Rosa’s founding editor, suddenly passed on that May Day. This text was then posthumously published five days later in the first of many Hors-séries, the name “Ruy himself would like to have called these fortuitous, extraordinary gatherings” of those assembled in “a plural leftist space open to debate.”1

While this text does not explicitly mention Rosa, it is impossible to not think about the two main questions it poses — about the roles of, on the one hand, the middle classes and intelligentsia and, on the other, the “critical press” in all its iterations and media, in resisting bolsonarismo — without the magazine in mind. In this sense, it functions as an important companion to Rosa’s introduction, albeit outlining Ruy’s perspective rather than representing the objectives or stances of the magazine. It also situates the conception of Rosa within a tradition of critical leftist media and thought, an important cornerstone of which is the French magazine and group Socialisme ou barbarie (1949–1967), led by Cornelius Castoriadis and Claude Lefort.

The Socialisme ou barbarie group, like Ruy, was affiliated with Trotskyism in its earlier years, but due to “its reformist attitude toward the Stalinist bureaucracy,” they formed their own group. “Indeed,” the editors continue, “our positions were formed on the basis of a problem that all revolutionary militants feel is the fundamental problem of our time: the nature of the ‘working-class’ bureaucracy and especially of the Stalinist bureaucracy.”2

Ruy is forthright in his conviction “that, mutatis mutandis, Brazil needs a magazine like Socialisme ou barbarie.” He asserts that intellectuals have been “neutralized by bureaucracy,” which, along with the Marxist tradition, stigmatizes the intellectual and the roles they can and should perform. But, while the editors of Socialisme ou barbarie believe to “represent the living continuation of Marxism within society today,” I don’t think this is Ruy’s — nor necessarily Rosa’s — aspiration. While the editors of Socialisme ou barbarie introduce themselves “to the avant-garde of manual and intellectual workers,”3 Ruy’s text is addressed to a middle-class intelligentsia or intelectualidade. (Rosa, by contrast, aspires towards a broader readership, “hop[ing] to have the support of the leftist public and readers of different political persuasions.”4)

Flavia Ocaranza

Intelectualidade, however, does not necessarily “mean” intelligentsia: it can also be translated as intellectualism, intellect, or intellectuals. In both English and Portuguese, intelligentsia is borrowed from the Russian intelligencija (itself from the Latin intelligencia via the Polish inteligencja, according to the Oxford English Dictionary), in which it came to suggest a social faction or class, rather than an intellectual group or capacity. Ruy often speaks of the intelligentsia (which he always italicizes) as a more specific subsection of the middle classes, particularly when discussing their roles: “the role the middle classes and, especially, the intelligentsia can play in resisting bolsonarismo.” When the role of the intelectualidade or intellectuals is explicitly mentioned, it is presented as the superset, rather than the subset: “To have an idea of the role that intellectuals, and particularly a publication, can play in the political situation of a country or the world,” Ruy writes. And, to have this idea, he invokes “a celebrated historical example, that of the magazine Socialisme ou barbarie”. While the intelectualidade often appears as those striving to “ensure the best popular voice: the voice of the people … who do not subscribe to the new authoritarianisms and irrationalisms” through producing what he deems the critical press, the intelligentsia constitutes those able to read and promote these media, particularly to Christians who, unlike most of “the Brazilian public, which is strongly attached to prejudices, mainly religious ones,” are against bolsonarismo.

This distinction between intelligentsia and intelectualidade is not waterproof. Marking a conclusion in his argument, Ruy writes that “we must value the role of the middle class, in particular that of the intelligentsia… publishing well-founded texts that are able to score decisive points in the left’s fight for hegemony.” Yet the intelectualidade, “influenced by the hegemonic tradition of the left and neutralized by bureaucracy,” comes to devalue itself. Hegemony, then, is another challenging word, variously appearing as aspiration and threat, something requisite for the intelligentsia and stultifying for the intelectualidade.

Flavia Ocaranza

Ruy admires Socialisme ou barbarie for its willingness, as led by militants-turned-intellectuals, “to face not only the right, but also the leaders of the left,” who are losing in the “fierce struggle for hegemony” against the far right due to their underestimation of and disregard for “ideological struggle.” As such, the majority of the Brazilian population is kept at a “very low level,” seemingly only reachable through the mobilization of what he calls democratically-inclined Christians, along with the intelligentsia and other unnamed middle-class groups, through the creation and promotion of this critical press.

Perhaps this is the through line I’ve found most surprising and discomfiting, with its a positivist air in the characterization of a “Brazilian public lagging too far behind.” When Ruy mentions the need to “give voice” to this group of Christians, he positions this as “com[ing] from the immediate data of a country like Brazil.” But, beyond the backdrop of “discussions we’ve had regarding Brazil’s current political situation and possible forms of intervention,” what is actually proposed reads as rather generally applicable. Much of the social, historical, and even economic dynamics that inflect this “data” are absent. How do these elaborate upon our understanding of the intelligentsia and intelectualidade, of the valences of hegemony, the titular roles of the middle classes and critical press? The study of these presses, especially those currently working in Brazil, helps elucidate the nature and import of this intellectual work, as well as its various and specific political stakes.