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New Left Review 24, November-December 2003

Portrait of one of Latin America’s most original sociologists, and the zoography of his native habitat. The calm iconoclasm of Francisco de Oliveira’s thought under military dictators and workers’ president alike.


In a national culture of notable variety and depth, the sociologist Chico de Oliveira has been one of Brazil’s most original thinkers. A North-Easterner, he was born in 1933, in Recife, and educated there. At the age of 24 he joined sudene, the regional state development agency, working as deputy to Celso Furtado, the country’s most famous economist. Both were driven into exile by the military dictatorship which came to power in the coup of 1964. Abroad, de Oliveira worked for the un in Guatemala and Mexico, before returning to Brazil in 1970, where he found employment with the social-science foundation cebrap in São Paulo. He later held chairs in sociology at both State and Catholic universities. In 1972 he published an iconoclastic reassessment of accepted theories of Brazilian economic development, under the title Critique of Dualist Reason. In this he took his distance from Furtado’s legacy, as well as more generally the intellectual tradition of cepal, the un’s Economic Commission on Latin America, whose presiding spirit was Raúl Prebisch. Politically, de Oliveira had been a militant of Brazil’s small, but not uninfluential, Socialist Party before 1964. Under the gradual ‘opening’ of dictatorship in the late seventies, he helped to found the Workers’ Party (pt), in which he remains active to this day. With democratization, his mordant analyses of the political scene and the forces manoeuvring across it attracted increasing attention. Roberto Schwarz has described his essays of this period as ‘always surprising’—‘trenchant, yet unsectarian’, disconcerting both those who felt that sharp formulations were incompatible with social negotiation, and those for whom any level-headed analysis of opposing interests was an invitation to lukewarm compromise. Pointing out how accurate his prognoses of the ill-fated stabilization plan of the Sarney government (1985–90) and of the leprous Collor Presidency (1990–92) proved to be, Schwarz remarks that this kind of far-sightedness has come from an intellectual independence, and distaste for the vulgar and authoritarian strands of Brazilian tradition, that is all the more notable in ‘a gregarious culture like ours’. Today, de Oliveira has displayed the same courage, with an acerbic depiction of the aberrant social reality of his country, of which—he argues—his own party now forms an integral part. The essay in question, ‘The Duckbilled Platypus’, has caused a fierce controversy in Brazil. We publish it below, with the preface by Roberto Schwarz that has accompanied it.



Venceu o sistema de Babilônia
e o garção de costeleta
Oswald de Andrade, 1946

The epigraph condenses, in caustic mode, the historic disappointment of a libertarian modernist at the postwar outcome. The defeat of Nazism in Europe and the end of the Vargas dictatorship in Brazil had been moments of unusual hope, but they had not opened the door to higher forms of society. So far as we were concerned, victory went to the Babylonian system—that is, capitalism; and to the maître dee—that is, kitsch aesthetics. The social and artistic ferment of the 1920s and 30s had ended in this.

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Roberto Schwarz, ‘Preface with Questions’, NLR 24: £3

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