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Fernando Novais: The spheres of existence

The professor from USP and UNICAMP talks about his career, the place of history in the field of social sciences, and the crisis of the colonial system that led to the Independence of Brazil

Léo Ramos Chaves / Revista Pesquisa FAPESP

In 89 years of life and a career of more than 60, Fernando Antonio Novais had a unique trajectory in Brazilian historiography. In the classic Portugal e Brasil na crise do antigo sistema colonial (1777–1808) (Brazil, Portugal and the crisis of the ancient colonial system [1777–1808]), the result of his PhD thesis defended in 1973, he links colonization with the formation of merchant capitalism and the transformations that took place in its core and periphery. He also highlights the set of political and economic relationships established between the Portuguese metropole and its Colony in South America, showing how both were impacted, in their own way, by the transformations of capitalism at the turn of the eighteenth to nineteenth century, but they reached an inflection point that led to the Independence of Brazil under peculiar conditions compared with those of other New World countries.

Age 89
Field of expertise
History of Brazil
University of São Paulo (USP), University of Campinas (UNICAMP)
Educational background
Graduation (1958) and PhD (1973) at USP
Published works
Author of books such as Portugal e Brasil na crise do antigo sistema colonial (1777–1808) (Brazil, Portugal and the crisis of the ancient colonial system [1777–1808]); coordinated the collection História da vida privada (A history of private life)

A historian with a Marxist background, in the 1990s he coordinated the História da vida privada (A history of private life) collection, by Companhia das Letras, edited according to costumes from the so-called “Nova História” (New History) movement, which emerged in the 1980s to oppose the influence of the Marxist theory of history. Novais did not see this as a contradiction, as he considers that it is compatible to study history by themes, as advocated by the movement, and adopt a consolidated theoretical reference at the same time. Graduating in 1958 from the School of Philosophy, Sciences, and Languages and Literature (current FFLCH) at USP, Novais went on to teach Modern and Contemporary History from 1961 to 1986 at his alma mater before transferring to the Institute of Economics of the University of Campinas (UNICAMP), retiring in 2003. He also worked as a visiting professor or researcher in universities in Portugal and the USA, as well as teaching courses in institutions in France and Belgium.

In the following interview, he looks back on his career, outlines his concerns about the position of history in the field of social sciences, and talks about the crisis of capitalism that led to the Independence of Brazil.

How did you choose the career of a historian?
My family were not intellectuals, but my father was a very studious person. He was the director of a school group. I was born in Guararema, near São Paulo. My father was moved to Colina, in the north of the state, where I lived until 7 years old. Then we moved to São José do Rio Preto. I came to São Paulo when I was 15 years old, and never left. I always went to public school, which at that time was the best. I went to Colégio Roosevelt, on Rua São Joaquim, to take the classic course. The choice between classic and scientific already suggested that I would go on to humanities—I wasn’t very good with exact sciences. I really liked literature, but I had the idea that to teach, I would need to know languages and would have to learn them. At Colégio Roosevelt, I had an exceptional history teacher. She was called Maria Simões, she talked with me a lot. When I came to the end of the course, I didn’t have much doubt that I would go and study geography or history, because they were together at that time, like in France.

And why did you prefer to become a researcher in the field of history?
In the first year at the School of Philosophy, the best subjects were in geography. Greek History was taught by professor Pedro Moacyr Campos [1920–1976]. I went to speak with him one day and asked about the bibliography of a topic he had covered in class. He asked me: “Do you know German?” I replied that I didn’t. “Because there is only a bibliography in German.” He turned his back and left. I, of course, went and studied German. I was better at French. That year, Pierre Monbeig [1908–1987], who had spent 11 years as a geography teacher in the School of Philosophy, returned to teach Geography of Colonization, and I took the course. I understood half of what he said. I had studied French on a course offered by the student union. In the second year, I met the Modern History teacher, Eduard d’Oliveira França [1917–2003], who had a deep influence on me. I spent my whole career with him in the School of Philosophy. To this day I consider myself his disciple.

Applied history does not exist. Making a prediction of history is inconceivable. And history is like that because it deals with all the spheres of existence

How was the first contact with professor França?
He taught a course at Maria Antônia, on Wednesdays, for a small class, about the Italian Renaissance, and Florence in the fifteenth century. On the first day, he arrived late and began the class by saying: “Gentlemen, let’s work together this semester, we need to understand one another. First of all, anybody who wishes to leave the class must ask for permission. And get used to it, because I am not very punctual. Besides, punctuality is a trait of the mediocre. A teacher who has nothing to give their students, offers punctuality.” After an hour and a half, the students were fascinated by the class. He belonged to the second class that graduated at USP and was a privileged student of the historian Fernand Braudel [1902–1985], one of the foreign professors that came to USP after it was founded. From there, I went to the side of history. I went to classes in the afternoon. In the evening, I would sneak into the philosophy, literature, and social science courses.

What interested you the most?
In the first year, I took the anthropology course of professor Gioconda Mussolini [1913–1969] and she told me: “Fernando, if you are going to be a historian, you need to take some sociology courses, they are very important. I recommend the course by Antonio Candido [1918–2017], on social organization, and the one by Florestan Fernandes [1920–1995], on methods.” The following Tuesday I looked for Antonio Candido: “Professor, I’m from the history course but I want to take your class.” He said: “Oh, yes, that makes me very happy. Have you seen the program and bibliography? You didn’t come to see if you like it, did you?” I said: “Absolutely.” On Thursday, I had the same conversation with Florestan. He looked at me and asked: “What have you read on sociology?” I replied that I had read the manual by Armand Cuvillier. He said: “It is little, you won’t understand anything. Take the introduction to sociology course and come back next year.” And he shut the door in my face. I took Florestan’s course the following year and understood 50%. On the course he assumed knowledge of Durkheim, Weber, and Marx, and reflected on all three. At that time, I had already begun to reflect on something that concerns me to this day, which is the position of history within the framework of social sciences. I discussed this a lot with the professors.

What was the focus of the discussion?
History is not different from social sciences because it studies the past, and they the present, as it was said. Anthropology, sociology, and economics can study the past, just like there is contemporary and even immediate history. If it is not this that distinguishes it, what is it? Nobody had an answer. I discussed this several times, in conversations with professor França. An important point is that each of the social sciences has one sphere of existence as its object, whereas history deals with them all at the same time. Of the human sciences, this division is clearest with economics. The economy is the sphere of existence regarding the production and consumption of economic goods, that is, material or other objects, that are useful and scarce. The development of economics, sociology, or anthropology is linked with the consolidation of capitalism and the industrial revolution. Sociology is linked to the emergence of an urban-industrial society, which demanded a different understanding of sociability. Anthropology is related, historically, with the Scramble for Africa and the need to understand so-called primitive cultures. Economics is the most formalized of the social sciences and can make predictions. With history, the opposite occurs. Applied history does not exist. Making a prediction of history is inconceivable. And history is like that because it deals with all the spheres of existence. The object of a historian’s discourse is unlimited. It is all human existence. In epistemology, in philosophy of science, in logic, the definition of science establishes two characteristics. The first is the rigorous selection of the object. The second is an appropriate method for the object. With these criteria, history could not even be a science, since its object is not delimited.

And how does history relate to the social sciences?
There had still not been capitalism, or bourgeoisie, or imperialism, or the Scramble for Africa, none of it, when Venerable Bede [c.673–735] wrote the Ecclesiastical History of the English People in the High Middle Ages. Much earlier, in Greece, for some reason the polis began to demand a discourse that narrated the events. This led the historiographical discourse to separate from the mythological discourse. When the social sciences emerged, throughout the nineteenth century, history already existed, but it began to be influenced by them. Historians started to want to be scientists. Narrating the events wasn’t enough, it was necessary to explain them. One of the effects is that they began writing badly, compared to the literary text of the chroniclers that came before them. For history to be modern—simultaneously narrative and explicative—it has to use the social science concepts. What are they? The concepts of the social sciences relative to the sector that you are studying. If you are studying childhood education in the seventeenth century, it is necessary to take the concepts of pedagogy, education, and psychology. But this needs to be historicized. And what does it mean to be historicized? It means to see how these concepts worked at the time.

From 1958, in the School of Philosophy, you took part in the seminars to study Capital, which united names such as sociologist Fernando Henrique Cardoso, philosopher José Arthur Giannotti (1930–2021), and literary critic Roberto Schwartz. Some stopped being Marxists. Would you define yourself as a Marxist historian like at that time?
Most of the members of the reading group for Capital stopped being Marxist. I mentioned the other day to Robert Schwartz: we are the last ones standing. I am and intend to be a Marxist historian. When I retired and turned 80, my advisees released a volume of essays published by Cosac Naify, called Aproximações, estudos de história e historiografia (Approximations, studies of history and historiography). The work had a preface by my advisee, Pedro Puntoni, and the cover flap was written by an advisee, Laura de Mello e Souza, both very dear colleagues. They both say that I am a Marxist historian, although nondogmatic, and that is common in both their writings. Just that one of them, Pedro, takes the Marxist side. And Laura, takes the nondogmatic side. I really like them both.

 In the 1990s, you coordinated the collection História da vida privada, considered an example of the so-called New History, a trend that opposed the Marxist analysis of history. Was there actually a contradiction?
When I went to work on the collection at Companhia das Letras, several people asked me: are you a Marxist historian working on a typically New History publication? New History presents itself as being the overcoming of Marxism, but I don’t see opposition between the two. The 1970s and 1980s were marked by the so-called crisis of paradigms, which is the abandonment of the great theories for the rigorous selection of more restrictive topics. Social sciences and history reacted differently. The social scientists by furthering the theoretical debate; the historians by changing the subject. This abandonment corresponded to the abandonment of the general view of Marxism, that it is a theory of history. That is why New History appears as an overcoming of Marxism. New History, rather than furthering the theoretical discussion, prefers to change the subject. The historian can simply change the subject, since the object of history is not delimited. But why, on changing the subject, should you not use old concepts? Should history go back to being just narrative, like it was in the time of the chroniclers? I think this is a misunderstanding.

Portugal depended on alliances and made all the concessions it could make: it just wouldn’t give up the territory of Brazil

Going back to the Marx seminars, how was the coexistence between the participants?
Giannotti was fundamental in forming the group, which was made up of politically advanced people, left-wing, non-reactionaries, but who did not support Soviet Marxism. In the biography that he wrote about Marx, José Paulo Netto, a professor from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, points out that the texts of Marx and Engels were being produced and discussed little by little. Another work, A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, by sociologist Tom Bottomore [1990–1992], shows that different positions of Marxism exist in almost all of the entries, from alienation to violence. I would add that, in the Soviet experience, the texts of Marx and Engels became a canon—all the drafts were published. Given these characteristics, the adversaries of Marxism take possible contradictions as a basis for their refutation. Whereas in the internal discussions of Marxism, different movements find quotes to support their positions, as happens with the Bible, cited by the orthodox and heterodox. Giannotti used to say: we need to see if there is an inherent ontology, latent in Marx. We have to discover if it exists and what it is. In Brazil there were two sides that innovated with regards the problems of Marxism. One in economics, through CEPAL [Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean], and the other side was a professor: Florestan Fernandes. For this reason, Florestan was not invited to take part in the group, since he was the topic of discussion. There is an interview with Florestan for a magazine in which he talks about the effort to implement modern sociology in Brazil, and he says: “The new generations did not collaborate. Assembly groups started appearing everywhere to read Capital, Lukács, and the like. Naturally, I was not invited. I wasn’t upset, I had other things to do.” I remember saying to Florestan: “Professor, you gave us all a beating.” “Were you upset? Great, that is what I wanted,” he responded.

What did you discuss in the seminars?
Marxist thought enters in one way for sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, and psychoanalysts, and another for the philosophers. Giannotti’s work soon after was about Marx. He said: it is necessary to read Capital as a philosophy text. What does it mean to read it as a philosophy text? He replied: “A philosophy text requires conversion, you only understand a philosopher if you think like them, on their terms. You cannot read them and criticize them at the same time.” He covers this in several books and concluded that an ontology of Marxism exists, but that he is unable to pin it down. Within the group, there were two sides. One, which was led by Roberto Schwartz, around Lukács [Hungarian philosopher György Lukács, 1885–1971] and the Frankfurt School. The other, by Bento Prado [1937–2007], around Sartre [French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, 1905–1980]. This appeared in the debates between Bento and Giannotti and it was a lot of fun. I was very shy at the beginning, but later began to see that the people didn’t know much about history. They spoke of Russia in the twelfth century; there was no Russia in the twelfth century. From that moment, I began to feel more at ease. They are all good friends. The coup came in 1964. Fernando Henrique had to go to Chile. The expulsions began at the start of 1969. The period from 1964 to 1969 was terrible, decisive.

Talking about your career as a researcher. What is the importance of discovering documents for historians?
It is one of the delights of historical research. The historian has to arrive at the event and narrate it and this can change with the discovery of texts. I had a personal experience with the discovery of documents, but it ended in frustration. My research was about Portugal’s colonial policy over Brazil at the end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth century, from 1777 to 1807, after the period of the Marquis of Pombal until the Prince Regent Dom João’s arrival in Brazil. I was researching in the Arquivo Ultramarino, in Lisbon. One of the main characters for my thesis about Portugal and Brazil in the crisis of the ancient colonial system was Dom Rodrigo de Sousa Coutinho. He was the minister of foreign affairs, then a type of prime minister, and died in 1812, in Brazil. Dom Rodrigo de Sousa Coutinho was the main statesman after Pombal. Well, I found one of his memoirs about domains in America. I was fascinated and desperate. As I saw it was important, I photocopied everything. When I returned to Brazil, to complete the research, I found a literature magazine called Brasília. I went through the magazine from the first to the last issue and there I found “Rodrigo de Sousa Coutinho: Memórias sobre os melhoramentos dos nossos domínios na América” (Memories about the improvements of our domains in America). The text had already been found by a little-known history of literature professor. Then I saw that there was a third edition by a Brazilian, more self-taught, Marcos Carneiro de Mendonça, from Rio de Janeiro. He published a book about another statesman of this period, in which he publishes, under a different title, the same manuscript that was in the National Library of Rio de Janeiro.

What was the impact of your work on the PhD thesis about Portugal and Brazil in the crisis of the ancient colonial system?
The repercussion, in general, was good. I received criticism from Marxist authors, such as Jacob Gorender and Ciro Flamarion Cardoso, for example, about the definition of what colonial slavery was. I was also criticized by non-Marxist historians, modern New History historians, showing that the Brazilian economy was not formed with a focus on international trade. My thesis says that the colonial system is contradictory. To exploit the colony, it is necessary to develop it. By developing it, the domestic market was created. It is written there. People often want to take your research and show that it is explicative where it is not.

What is the main contribution of the work?
The problem is locating, in the formation of capitalism, what Brazil’s position was in the development of the centers and peripheries. And comparing this position with that of the USA, of Spanish America, and other countries. When capitalism is completed with the industrial revolution, the whole system is redefined.

Pedro I is a quixotic figure. He was kicked out of the country that he proclaimed independent and welcomed by his country of birth, that he had abandoned

Talking of the process of Independence, what was Brazil’s position in the rupture between colonies and metropoles?
Part of my thesis discusses how Brazil emerges from the crisis of the colonial system. Marxism has a way of historicizing the concepts: the colonial system accompanies the formation of capitalism, in Europe and here in the Portuguese Colony. They are integrated processes. Portugal did not develop for extremely complex reasons. It depended on alliances with other metropoles and made all the concessions it could make: it just wouldn’t give up the territory of Brazil. If Portugal had lost the Colony, what would it have had to offer England in exchange for military support to defend itself from Spain, which wanted to annex Portugal? Let’s take the year 1640, when the Portuguese Restoration War and the Catalonia war of independence started. The war in Portugal lasted 28 years. Spain only recognized Bragança in 1668. In Catalonia, it lasted 15 years. Catalonia did not become independent, despite being a region larger than Portugal, with geographical and cultural unity, and its own language as distinct from Castilian Spanish as Portuguese. Catalonia had the alliance with France, which was next door. Portugal was allied with England. What did Portugal have that Catalonia did not? Brazil. With the Colony, it could trade and receive protection in exchange. This helps to understand why the process of independence here was very specific.

How was it different?
The crisis in the formation of capitalism took place in the city centers and in the outskirts, between 1750 and 1850. In the centers and outskirts, reform and revolution are ways of facing crisis. The metropoles made reforms, reducing colonial exploitation, the primitive channels of accumulation. Portugal went further than the other metropoles and it is this that I study in my book, that is why the figure of Rodrigo de Sousa Coutinho is fundamental. The reforms in Portugal sought to harmonize the development of the Colony with the metropole. In France, there was a revolution, which led to the abolition of slavery in the colonies. Where the reforms went further, revolutionary attempts were weak: in Brazil, the Minas Gerais Conspiracy [Inconfidência Mineira], in 1789, and the Bahian Conspiracy [Conjuração Baiana], in 1798. In the Minas Gerais Conspiracy, there is the charm of the poets and Tiradentes was hanged. In the Bahian Conspiracy, its leaders are all popular. Four were hanged in Largo da Piedade and few people remember their names. What is the difference? It’s because the abolition of slavery was something vague in the Minas Gerais Conspiracy and it was immediate in the Bahian Conspiracy. When Napoleon invaded Portugal, the Court came to Brazil, protected by the English, and the Crown was saved. The position of the ruling elite in Brazil was just the same as that of the rulers across the New World: they sought separation, independence, while at the same time wanting to maintain social domination. But when the royal family came, the political situation was inverted, and Brazil became the center. When the revolution in Portugal erupted in 1820, the Courts demanded the return of the king, but the king wanted to stay. It is a very curious situation, because the State headed the ruling class, and the lordships developed close ties with the prince. It was a revolution to preserve what it already had; a conservative revolution. That is why the “Marxist” view of the economic interpretation of history is wrong, which says: “We exchanged our dependence on Portugal to one on England,” as if it were the same thing. Independence is extremely important. And those who contributed to Brazil’s Independence, like José Bonifácio, realized that it was necessary to maintain slavery. Without slavery, there would be no Independence. How do you resolve the problem? “Oh, we integrate, little by little.” And to this day the population has not been integrated into society, into the State.

In a recent lecture, you suggested that, if Brazil had been colonized by England and not by Portugal, it could have taken a different trajectory, but not that of the USA. It could be a huge Jamaica. Why?
The 13 English colonies in North America had a type of immigrant colonization in which the economy is organized for its own consumption. They were not colonies for exploitation like in Brazil and Spanish America. The Antilles, with Jamaica, is another extreme of English colonization. There, everything was imported, eggs, chickens, because the focus was exclusively on making sugar. The more slaves that died, the more traffic increased, it was a conterminous situation. Between the extremes, we have Spanish America and Brazil, both leaning more towards colonies for exploration than for immigration, but without impeding local development. If Brazil had been colonized by England, it would likely be a huge Jamaica. The same applies in relation to the Dutch. If they had prevailed in the Northeast, we could have been a huge Suriname. The fact that we were colonized by Portugal matters, but that is not what explains whether Brazil is more or less developed today. And the type of colonization that was created at that time.

How do you evaluate the bicentennial celebrations?
There are advances of new themes, like the contribution of women, regional aspects of the process (which appear on the dates, September 7 or July 2), biographies of characters, such as Tiradentes. Independence is not a New History topic. We should expand the historiographic analysis of Brazil’s Independence, enrich biographies like that of Pedro I, who is a quixotic figure. He died in the room in which he was born, in the Palace of Queluz, and the name of the room is Dom Quixote. He was kicked out of the country that he proclaimed independent. And he was welcomed by his country of birth, that he had abandoned. But he is loved by the Brazilians who expelled him and is not loved by the Portuguese who welcomed him. Why is this not discussed? Dom Pedro has a good biography, not by chance by a Brazilian, Octavio Tarquínio de Souza. Dom João VI is another figure that the Portuguese don’t like very much, they feel sorry for him. There is a certain familiarity here. What’s curious is that Brazil celebrates Independence together with Portugal. This doesn’t happen in any other New World country. I mentioned this when I gave a class at UNICAMP and asked an Argentinian student, who later became an economic history teacher, “Can you imagine the president of the Republic in Argentina celebrating the May Revolution and inviting the King of Spain?” She replied: “Unthinkable.”

What is peculiar about the relationship between Brazilians and the Portuguese?
Our relationship with Portugal is a bit like a family argument. We make jokes about the Portuguese, but don’t tolerate foreigners making jokes about the Portuguese in front of us.

Have the ties remained?
When Mario Soares [1924–2017] was President of Portugal, between 1980 and 1990, José Aparecido de Oliveira [1929–2007] was the Brazilian ambassador in Lisbon, a politician from Minas Gerais. Historian Francisco Iglésias [1923–1999], who was a friend of José Aparecido, told me that the friendship between the ambassador and the president led Mario Soares to pronounce Tiradentes as a national hero, who fought for freedom. This is unthinkable in other countries.