José Genoíno’s life covers the trajectory of the Brazilian left over the last
half century. Born to a poor family in a small town in Ceará, Genoíno wore shoes
for the first time when he was fifteen years old. A priest helped him get an
education and IBM offered him a chance to enter a management training program.
But Genoíno turned away from both religion and the chance for a corporate career to become a leader in the student resistance to the military dictatorship. He joined an ill-fated guerrilla band along the banks of the Araguaia river where he was captured, imprisoned and tortured.
On his release, he broke with the Communist Party of Brazil because be believed the party was distorting history and misleading its followers by glorifying the guerrillas instead of learning from their defeat.
Ostracized by his former comrades, he joined a splinter group called the Revolutionary Communist Party which functioned as a Leninist faction within the Workers Party. At the time, he opposed democratic reform within the bourgeois system in favor of building towards socialist revolution.
Entre o Sonho e o Poder (Geração, 2006) is a fascinating set of interviews with Genoíno by Denise Paraná, a writer best known for Lula: O Filho do Brasil – www.brazzil.com/p135may03.htm. Paraná skillfully uses the interviews to tell the story of a movement that failed at revolution, but succeeded at democratic politics.
The memoirs are well supplemented by Maria Francisca Pinheiro Coelho’s José Genoíno: Escolhas Políticas (Centauro, 2007), a well researched biography. Coelho details Genoíno’s life from his days as a student radical and guerrilla fighter to his leadership in the Workers Party and in the Brazilian legislature.
She does not, however, try to judge his alleged involvement in the mensalão scandal, a matter which is still before the courts. Instead, she allows him to present his account in his own words.
The break with the Communist Party was not the only ideological shift in Genoíno’s life. In 1989, he moved in the opposite direction and broke with Leninism largely because of the collapse of “actually existing” socialism in Eastern Europe.
He recalls that he was deeply moved when he watched television coverage of “the scene on Tiananmen Square when students were massacred singing the International and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and the tanks of the socialist state rolled over them. I spent the whole night without sleeping, remembering colleagues who died in Araguaia and who, when they died, took China as their reference point.” (from Fernando Portela, Guerra de Guerrilhas no Brasil: A Saga do Araguaia (Terceiro Nome, 2002, p. 29).
When Genoíno broke with Leninism he gave a long interview to journalist Mauro Lopes”, which was published in the Folha de S. Paulo and widely discussed at the time. The interview is reprinted in Repensando o Socialismo (Brasiliense, 1991) which is hard to find today.
In it, he emphasizes that the question of liberty must be placed at the center of the socialist project. He rejects one-party dictatorship and states that socialists must be open to many kinds of property ownership, including that of private entrepreneurs. He challenges the left to find a model which is to the left of European social democracy but without compromising democracy rights.
Once again Genoíno was ostracized by many of his comrades, this time because he had gone to the “right” instead of the “left”. As Maria Francisca Pinheiro Coelho observes, “with rare exceptions, the Brazilian left refused to critically analyze the events [in Eastern Europe]. In order to not enter in crisis with their theory, they preferred not to learn from practice.” (p. 317).
Genoíno was at a low point in his life when Denise Paraná interviewed him. He had given up his seat in the federal legislature to run for governor of São Paulo, and, when he lost that race, he had become president of the Workers Party. But he had to give up the party presidency when he was indicted in the mensalão scandal, although he denies any wrongdoing.
As party president, he did sign for some loans that were used for payments to legislators. He insists that these payments were campaign contributions, not bribes. He was also tarnished by some of his brother’s problems, although he was not directly involved with them. He feared that his reputation was being destroyed.
When I interviewed him earlier this year, his spirits had recovered. He had been reelected to the federal legislature, and was looking forward to returning to Brasília. The legislature had always been the perfect outlet for his political and rhetorical talents.
The Workers Party, also, had moved very much in his direction with a new national program that aspired to socialism but insisted that democracy cannot be compromised.
As for Genoíno, he says “if they ask me what I am today, I reply: I am a democrat and, after being a democrat, I am a socialist.” Marxists often aspire to combine theory and practice in their lives. Genoíno has done it.
Ted Goertzel, Ph.D. is Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey. He is the author of a biography of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, available in English and in Portuguese. He can be contacted at email@example.com and his WEB page can be found at http://goertzel.org/ted.
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