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Public intellectual

José Murilo de Carvalho reinvigorated the study of the elite and citizenship in Brazil

The historian and political scientist interpreted Brazil through comprehensive lines of research

Léo Ramos Chaves / Revista Pesquisa FAPESP

If he had known more about mathematics at the age of 18, José Murilo de Carvalho would have studied to be an economist. However, his classical training at the Seminário Seráfico Santo Antônio school in Santos Dumont, Minas Gerais State, had not prepared him to solve equations, and he thus enrolled in a sociology and politics course at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG). This academic coincidence determined the career path of one of Brazil’s most important historians.

Born in Piedade do Rio Grande, Minas Gerais, on September 8, 1939, Carvalho died this August 13, at the age of 83. He was admitted to Hospital Samaritano in Rio de Janeiro with pneumonia and COVID-19, which affected his already weakened lungs, as reported by historian Lúcia Maria Bastos Pereira das Neves of the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ), a friend of 25 years.

After completing his degree in political science in 1965, Carvalho turned his attention to historical topics in his master’s degree (1969) and doctorate (1975), both studied at Stanford University, USA. His thesis was published in two books: A construção da ordem: A elite política imperial (The construction of order: The imperial political elite; Campus/UnB, 1980) and Teatro de sombras: A política imperial (Theater of shadows: Imperial policy; Vértice/Iuperj, 1988).

The books address the formation of Brazil as a nation based on decisions taken by the country’s elite. Both are considered milestones in the historiography of the Portuguese Empire as the first to use data and documents to show how the Brazilian State was constituted and how the imperial elite was consolidated. Carvalho interpreted the formation of bureaucracy in the period, the continuity of the Portuguese system, and the maintenance of the country’s territorial unity. “He showed that the imperial elite was not a mere representative of rural landowners and that the State was not just the executor of the interests of this class,” explains Gladys Sabina Ribeiro, a historian from Fluminense Federal University (UFF).

Ribeiro, Bastos, and Carvalho were among the creators of the Center for Eighteenth Century Studies (CEO) in 2003. From the beginning, the objective of the initiative was to bring together researchers from different institutions whose studies focus on the nineteenth century, through regular meetings and a database of their work.

After studying the imperial elites, Carvalho turned his eye to those who were excluded from the decision-making process, according to the title of one of his most important books: Os bestializados. O Rio de Janeiro e a República que não foi (The bestialized. Rio de Janeiro and the Republic that wasn’t; Companhia das Letras, 1987). Continuing with this theme, Carvalho released A formação das almas: O imaginário da República no Brasil (The formation of souls: The collective imagination of the Republic in Brazil; Companhia das Letras, 1990), which described the implementation of the republican regime.

Over the last 20 years at the CEO, Carvalho dedicated himself to a project on the circulation of pamphlets during Brazil’s independence period, in partnership with Bastos and Marcelo Basille, a historian from the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRRJ). According to Bastos, the project, which was condensed into the books Às armas, cidadãos (To arms, citizens; Companhia das Letras, 2012) and Guerra literária: Panfletos da Independência (Literary war: Independence pamphlets; Editora UFMG, 2014, with four volumes), also aimed to shed light on the actions of those who did not hold power at that decisive moment.

In 2001, Carvalho published Cidadania no Brasil: O longo caminho (Citizenship in Brazil: The long road; Civilização Brasileira). “José Murilo was one of the authors who wrote and reflected the most about citizenship in Brazil,” says Ribeiro. He sought to show that citizenship was built “from top to bottom” with a great weight from the State, even coining the term “statizenship.” At the same time, he observed that since the nineteenth century, public protests revealed the emergence of a “negative citizenship,” in which “the creation of citizenship from the top down faced resistance from those who saw the State’s actions as interference in their daily lives and in their traditions,” continues Ribeiro. The historian’s work indicates that these movements were not a refusal of citizenship by these individuals and that actually they represented a political struggle.

Throughout Carvalho’s career, he studied an ongoing secondary theme: the political actions of the military. The 2005 book Forças Armadas e política no Brasil (Armed Forces and politics in Brazil; Zahar) republished the articles “The Armed Forces in the First Republic: The destabilizing power” (1977) and “Armed Forces and politics, 1930–45” (1982), in addition to other texts. In 2019, motivated by former Army captain Jair Bolsonaro’s ascension to the presidency, the historian wrote a supplementary chapter for the book, republished by Todavia.

According to Celso Castro, an anthropologist and historian from the Research and Documentation Center at the Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV CPDOC), the articles are the result of original empirical research combined with deep theoretical reflection. “He managed to show, for example, that tenentism in the 1920s was related to a problem with career advancement, with lieutenants making up a huge portion of the officer ranks,” he says. Castro emphasizes that by highlighting “organizational aspects of the military institution,” Carvalho was able to partially explain the political behavior of the military. “That was his central concern,” he adds.

As a professor and researcher, he worked at institutions such as UFMG and the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), where he was named professor emeritus in 2011. He was a visiting professor and researcher at the University of Oxford, the University of London (both in the UK), Leiden University (Netherlands), Stanford, Princeton, the Institute for Advanced Study, the University of California, Irvine, Notre Dame (all in the USA), the School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (France), and Ortega y Gasset Foundation (Spain). In 2003 he became a member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences (ABC), and the following year, of the Brazilian Academy of Letters (ABL). In 2015 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Coimbra (Portugal).

Since the 1980s, Carvalho regularly collaborated with the media through articles and interviews. “He believed that intellectuals should take a position in relation to society’s problems and express it as public figures,” says Bastos. In Castro’s opinion, the scope of his work and his public interventions made Carvalho one of Brazil’s last great interpreters.

For the UERJ historian, the role of a public intellectual was aligned with the way Carvalho conceived of his research. “He came from a school that was concerned with the present,” says Bastos. “During the dictatorship, he studied the elites and the military. Then, after the country redemocratized, he dedicated himself to citizenship. With the return of the military to politics, he updated his work on them. His research covers the entire history of Brazil, except the colonial period. José Murilo offered important reflections on the Empire and the Republic, which are fundamental to understanding Brazilian society,” he concludes.