In Brazilian Doublespeak Tyranny Is Democracy and Vice Versa

Professor Florestan Fernandes in his libraryIt would be no mistake if someone argued that most of the Brazilian intellectuals have shown very little respect for the liberal-democratic traditions and legal institutions of the most developed countries in the Western world.

Coming from a generation of scholars trained in the first years of the Faculty of Philosophy, Science, and Letters of the prestigious University of São Paulo (USP), Florestan Fernandes (1920-1995) was a sociologist who exercised an enormous influence over most of the Brazilian intellectuals.

His influence, even inspiration, is easily seen in the academic writings of scholars with international reputation such as Roberto Mangabeira Ünger, former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Octavio Ianni, Leôncio Martins Rodrigues, José de Souza Martins, and others.

As the ‘father’ of Brazil’s radical sociology, Fernandes regarded the rule of law, including individual rights and procedural guarantees, as a mere instrument of exploitation by the ‘bourgeois classes’.

With the rule of law, he once declared, socio-economic exploitation will just keep on going because “everything must remain in its place”.

Fernandes argued that the rule of law served only as an instrument of monopolization of power in the hands of the bourgeois classes. He thought it was undesirable for the working classes to respect legal norms, advocating instead for a more radical conception of popular government.

In his book Reflections on the Brazilian Counter-Revolution, which he wrote only a few years before the end of the military regime (1964-1985), Fernandes criticises the army rulers for having stopped a proletarian revolution organized by the extreme left.

Fernandes also suggests in this book that the ‘popular masses’ should despise ‘all fantasies’ related to a constitutional order based on liberal democracy. For him, such order would be a mere ‘farce’ conceived by the ‘possessing classes’ in order to perpetuate their exploitation over the working classes.

Then he went on to explain that workers should rebel against the system, and support ‘revolutionary forces’ in their struggle for the establishment of so-called popular government. As he put it,

“What is extremely urgent is to stop this infantile thinking which proposes that the masses can be politicised without having to struggle. All struggle must inevitably start with a political space equal to zero…

“Only such a beginning will make further steps possible, liberate new alternative reformist and revolutionary forces, and break the historical enclosure in which the working classes and the popular masses now stand.

“When tactic and strategy are combined, the question of democracy begins to be a systematic and generalized defiance through civil disobedience. It is not enough to hold dissenting views: struggle is demanded. This can only be done through firm and continued civil disobedience”.(1)

As can be seen, Fernandes had little regard for the rule of law. He thought people had the right to disobey laws in the name of social justice. Of course, intellectuals such as Fernandes might have restricted their radicalism only to the ‘academic level’, not trying to take a further step towards political violence and revolutionary action.

Others, however, might eventually decide to engage themselves in acts of violence, regarding the government as ‘illegitimate’ and, therefore, having to be attacked at all costs.

As a good example of an intellectual who decided to put his radical ideas into practice, Carlos Marighella was a communist leader who wrote in the 1960s a famous book on urban guerrillas and afterwards organized a guerrilla’s movement. His dream was to transform Brazil into another Vietnam.

He failed in the attempt, but his book turned out to be a best seller, the country’s most quoted political essay during many years. In brief, it conferred to Marighella the quite deserved status of “father of urban guerrilla” and “strategist of terror”.

Another important scholar who has already justified the ‘right’ to political violence is Antônio Cândido, a retired literature professor from the prestigious University of São Paulo (USP).

In 1988, the year where the country enacted its current democratic constitution, Cândido declared in an interview to Teoria e Debate that violence is “a constant possibility” in terms of political action, and “an eventual necessity for any nation”.(2)

According to Cândido, political violence would be morally acceptable if based on a “correct revolutionary conception” that somehow reflected “an adequate organization”. In these cases, this influential intellectual explicitly argued that violence constitutes “a much decisive and necessary factor in politics”.

In having a few years later the opportunity to change his mind on the subject, Cândido basically repeated the same opinion in 1991 to the Jornal da USP.

“In underdeveloped countries like Brazil”, he points out, “to implement social-democracy is hard because of the historical nature of such countries. Thus it would be better to implement democratic socialism.

“This is a socialism which demands social transformation through what I call ‘bifocal vision’: one glass is used to see long-run social transformation (the goals achieved through social struggle); and the other glass is to see short-term social transformation, identifying our best tools in terms of social struggle.

“This obviously depends on the social context. If a revolution is necessary, so a revolution has to be done. If the case is of bearing arms, then, we must take our arms and fight for the revolution.(3)

As one might say, Cândido has on two different occasions forgotten that the use of violence is not a viable democratic proceeding. He forgot that democratic development implies a clear and unconditional respect for legality, and, particularly, to what Norberto Bobbio properly described as the constitutional rules of the democratic game.

In other words, political players have to be willing to commit themselves to principles of the rule of law. If they are really interested in preserving the democratic legal system, they will understand that ‘social transformation’ does not imply the use of brute force, or the arrogant disrespect of statutory laws enacted by a popularly elected legislature.

In Brazil, a basic problem for the realization of the rule of law is that the political writings of Russian revolutionaries, particularly Lenin and Bukharin, are extremely popular amongst politicians and academic people.

For example, they provided theoretical formulation for the writings of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, “the most distinguished Marxist scholar to lead a nation since the death of V.I. Lenin”. In fact, Cardoso’s ‘dependence theory’ is nothing but a theoretical revision of Lenin’s theory of imperialism.

Another intellectual who was deeply influenced by Lenin’s writings is Emir Sader, currently the head of the Laboratory of Public Policies at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ).

Sader participated in the foundation of the ruling Workers’ Party (PT) and exercised a leading role in the elaboration of the political program for President Lula’s candidacy.

As the author of well-known books, including Os Sete Pecados do Capital (‘The Seven Sins of Capital’), Cartas à Che Guevara (‘Letters to Che Guevara’), and Estado e Política em Marx (‘State and Politics in Marx’), Sader identifies himself as a ‘socialist militant’ who openly supports the radical actions of ‘social movements’ like the Landless Movement (MST).

Actually, Sader is so much a ‘socialist militant’ that a leader of Colombia’s FARC drug guerrillas describes him as a major contact for the organization in Brazil.(4) In one article published on March 17, 2002 by Jornal do Brasil, Sader comments:

“Vargas, Perón, Arbenz, Goulart, Allende, and several others, were democratic leaders who fell from power because of their [democratic] virtues, not vices. They tried to establish a democracy based on popular will, but clashed with the interests of the oligarchy and political elites in power, not to mention the destabilising influence of the U.S. government, as well as the terrorist actions of the big media”.(5)

It is quite interesting to observe that Emir Sader, a political theorist who frequently appears on television and regularly publishes his political writings in leading newspapers, do not regard himself as a typical Brazilian oligarch.

Also curious is his opinion that the ‘big media’, the very one where he normally publishes his articles, exercises ‘terrorism’ if it dares to publish anything which goes against the personal will of ‘democrats’ like Perón, Vargas, and Sader himself.

In fact, the list of ‘democratic’ leaders elaborated by Emir Sader includes two of the most authoritarian leaders in Latin America’s history: Vargas and Perón.

It seems that Sader considers anyone who is anti-American a democrat. If so, he should extend his list by including ‘democrats’ such as Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, and Pol-Pot.

In the same article where Sader praises Vargas and Perón as authentic democratic leaders, he also praises Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez as democratic leader as well.

According to Sader, the only ‘sin’ committed by Chavez is having established a “Latin American resistance against the imperial and neo-liberal hegemony of the United States”.

Sader is very clear in the article that he thinks Colonel Chavez, an army officer who in 1992 tried to become president by staging a military coup, is just a law-abiding populist leader. As he puts it,

“Which kind of sin has Hugo Chavez committed? They are certainly not institutional, for Chavez has always obeyed every single rule of the liberal-democratic process, to reach power and change the country’s constitution, be re-elected, and have his laws passed by the Parliament.

“Regardless of any mistake that Chavez might have committed…, what is essential here cannot be ignored: Except for Cuba, a new state rather than a mere government, every government in this continent that opposed itself to the United States has been overthrown.”(6)

But in contrast to what Sader suggests, the biggest sin of Colonel Chavez is certainly not the one of challenging the United States. This is just an act of stupidity that is ruining his country economically.

Rather, the real ‘sin’ of Chavez is to have done away with the rule of law, as a fact that even his political mentor, Luis Miquiella, a founding member of the Communist Party of Venezuela, is now able to recognize. For him, Chavez has gotten “drunk on power and is not fit to govern in a democracy”.

In December 2002, for example, Chavez declared during his weekly program on national television that the Venezuelan armed forces should not obey the laws and court orders which go against his personal will.

The people of Venezuela have described what is taking place in their country as a ‘constitutional coup’. In explaining how this sort of ‘constitutional coup’ works into practice, Ivan Osorio comments:

“Chavez’s contempt for the rule of law is astounding. Despite his praise for the constitution, he has already in his first four years broken 60% of its articles… He has seized control of the Caracas police department and defied a court order to return the department to the city’s mayor’s control.

“Chavez’s ‘constitution’ is a farce instituted by Chavez himself in December 1999, a year after he was elected, to extend his hold on power… The new ‘constitution’ dissolved the senate, extended the president’s term from five to six years, [and] gave greater power to the military… [It] includes a ‘truthful information’ press provision which will now be used to curtail TV and radio stations critical to the government…”(7)

Another problem is the argument of Emir Sader that Cuba is an ‘authentic democracy’ because its communist regime has “universalised the rights to… education, information, and culture”.(8)

He still has in this case to explain how these rights might be fully enjoyed by the citizens of a country that criminalizes any form of thought which is not considered in accord with the political ideas of the government.

In reality, social rights to education, information, and culture can only be exercised if citizens are allowed to meet with others in group and without previous governmental authorization. However, this very prohibition is made very clear by articles 53 and 54 of the Cuban Constitution.

In the ‘democratic’ Cuba of intellectuals such as Emir Sader, any citizen, on any pretext, can be arbitrarily arrested if the state thinks he or she presents a danger to ‘national security’, even if no crime has yet been committed.

As can be seen, Brazilian intellectuals such as Emir Sader ignore the basic fact that individual rights such as the ones to free speech and writing constitute a preliminary condition for the full exercise of social rights to education, information, and culture.

If a government takes away these rights, then the very foundations for the full exercise of rights to education, information, and culture are gone.

As far as procedure goes, it is pointless to speak about these supposed rights if citizens are never allowed to think and act for themselves, but, rather, forced by a totalitarian regime to always act in observance to the personal will of an eternal dictator.


(1) Fernandes, Florestan; Reflections on the Brazilian Counter-Revolution. New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1981, p.142.

(2) See: Teoria e Debate. Revista do Partido dos Trabalhadores, 1988. Quoted from: Reale, Miguel; O Estado Democrático de Direito e o Conflito das Ideologias. São Paulo: Saraiva, 1999, p.9.

(3) Reale, Miguel; O Estado Democrático de Direito e o Conflito das Ideologias. São Paulo: Saraiva, 1999, p.9.

(4) As Farc têm todo o Tempo do Mundo. Interview of journalist Fabiano Maisonnave with FARC’s commander Raul Rayes. Folha de S. Paulo, 24 August 2003.

(5) Sader, Emir; Os Pecados de Hugo Chavez. Jornal do Brasil, 17 March 2002.

(6) Sader, Emir; Os Pecados de Hugo Chavez. Jornal do Brasil, 17 March 2002.

(7) Osorio, Ivan; Venezuela’s Tyrant Hugo Chavez Must Go. Capitalism Magazine. 16 January 2003.

(8) Sader, Emir; A ‘Subversão’ de Cuba e da Venezuela’. Agência Carta Maior, 06 January 2004.

Augusto Zimmermann is a Brazilian Law Professor and Ph.D. candidate for Monash University – Faculty of Law, in Australia. His e-mail is


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