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Leandro Konder: The discrete charm of Marxism

Leandro Konder launches a new book, A Question of Ideology, in which he reasserts his beliefs in the modernity of Marx's ideological ideas

LEO RAMOSWalls may fall, many may deny what they wrote, but he does not mind. “Philosophy is a terrain for resistance, where the issue is not what a given theory serves for, but what its truth is”. The definition comes from Leandro Konder, the incumbent professor of the Education Department of the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio), who has just launched his new book, A Question of Ideology. Today, in his sixties, he says that his ability to live with its limits has developed over time, and says that he is perplexed when faced by the uncertainties experienced by man at the beginning of the 21st century. Read below some excerpts from the interview.

Your last book is called A Question of Ideology. Is the analysis you carried out in the work is also on the polemics about the end of ideologies?
My idea is that Marx had a genial insight of an issue that is now present and imposes itself more and more, which is ideology. He thought that he had solved it, and I don’t think so. We need to take up this issue again nowadays, from an angle that is no longer precisely the same as the German thinker’s, but one that makes use of his contributions, decisive, critical, but not sufficiently self-critical. I try to contribute for there to be a revision capable of strengthening Marxist thinkers, recovering all that the concept brings us, so allow us to see ourselves from a more critical angle. I don’t have any pretension of creating a new concept of ideology.

Do you still regard Marxism as a science?
Not a science, but a philosophical horizon, which is possibly the most rigorous and richest of our time.

In 1990, you published your book Brazilian Intellectuals and Marxism, and you said that you could not write about the history of Brazilian thinking in the 20th century without mentioning Marxism.
The observation continues to be valid. Possibly, I write texts that I think may have aged, but it is not true. Marxism leaves its mark on history, for better or for worse. After all, it also shows certain limitations, typical of the thinking of a sociology of the Brazilian culture, and we can find these limitations in the thinking of the right and of the left as well.

What are these limitations of Marxism?
Here, Marxism took on a very doctrinaire form. We yielded to the temptation of turning thinking into a doctrine, and this is a form of expression of thinking that imprisons and generates accusations. There soon appear the vigilantes of the doctrine, and this creates a difficulty for opening up to something new. Both the thinking of the left and of the right, and even liberal thinking and that of the central, allow themselves to take on a doctrinaire aspect.

Four years ago, you took part in the hundred years of the Communist Manifesto, in Paris. Have the ideas of socialism been incorporated by capitalism?
Certainly, I am still a socialist, and the ideas of socialism are used by capitalism, but always, inevitably, in a distorted way. Capitalism is incompatible with socialism. Capitalism tries to take advantage of elements of socialism in a more or less opportunist way, sometimes with ability, at other times not. I continue to believe that it is the replacement of one system by another system. How this is going to be, I do not know. I am not a champion of political thinking, I do not have the pretension of dictating and indicating paths, although there is a direction in which the quest is possible. A direction that corresponds to a traditional demand for combining democracy and freedom and social justice, something that liberalism cannot manage to do. We have the awareness that we can do this, only we do not yet know how.

Why do you think that political science does not exist?
I have the impression that what has been produced in terms of political science is not all that scientific. Even when it is respectable and corresponds to a reality of ours, from our effort to recognize the reality of politics, this knowledge is not knowledge that we can pacifically regard as scientific. But, anyway, I try to take part in politics and to defend certain values, not only on a theoretical plane but in the practical one as well. I remember a 20th century author and playwright, Bertold Brecht, who was much respected and whom I admire a lot, who used to say the following: “The victory of reason can only be the victory of reasonable people, reason does not exist by itself, it exists in the conduct and in the action of persons. So if these reasonable people do not win, reason does not prevail. The victory of ideas is the victory of the material bearers of these ideas. Reasonable people have to do politics for reason to prevail, because there is no other way of prevailing, except by way of politics done by reasonable people”.

In Brazilian literature, one of your favorite authors is Carlos Drummond de Andrade. Did a relationship of friendship exist between you, or just admiration for the poet from Itabira?
Friendship is too strong a sentiment. After a given moment, I wrote to Drummond, and he replied, then we exchanged a few letters, only four or five. He was very generous in the notes he sent me when I wrote an article on when he reached the age of 80 and I said: “Folks, let’s leave the poet alone and not make a fuss about him”. Because Drummond was averse to all this. He thanked me a lot and commented: “Now, you have become a friend of mine”. However, I think it was the force of expression, obviously I was not a friend of his, we had no intimacy. His importance as a poet tends to grow, and his work will be recognized as a major work with the passage of time. Of course, Drummond has more expressive poems and others less so, but generally speaking it is a very rich work, and at his zenith he wrote poems that were absolutely genial.

A little like you, who does not like polemics and hype?
Machado de Assis would say: “I suffer from boredom with controversy”. I like dialog, difference, but when this is manifested very aggressively, patience is short. It’s very disagreeable to say to someone: “You are an idiot”. I don’t like saying that the others are idiots, after all, I may be mistaken, it may be that there is intelligence in that world of my aggressive opponent, so it would be to commit an injustice. And, when I’m irritated, I may commit injustices more easily.

Alberto, a shoemaker and an anarchist, and Bartoloméia, who compose voraciously critical phrases by famous authors, are neighbors and personages in your chronicles. What is it like for a Marxist thinker to write about an anarchist?
I have a lot of sympathy for anarchism, although I am not convinced of its political rightness. Anarchism has a certain grandeur of soul, but a certain notorious political ineffectiveness. So I wanted to create a personage with which I could identify myself, regardless of the political differences. Alberto is a personage who has a rebellious integrity that fascinates me a lot, he is a bit of an alter ego that I created for myself, freed from political concerns, for more immediate politics. Alberto is a radical, but he may even be radical precisely for not being very efficient, and one misses this radicalism nowadays. In contemporary society, we measure everything, including passions. I think this is absurd: passion, in this case, is immeasurable, it is cannot be measured, if it can, it’s not passion. Then they invented measured passions, and Alberto is a reaction against this. As to Bartoloméia, I thought of her as a surrealist, who expresses a side of me that has an enormous sympathy for surrealism as a historical artistic cultural movement.

You say that you have an immense pleasure in lecturing to undergraduates, and the students fight for a place in packed out classroom at PUC to hear you. The most usual thing is for intellectuals of your stature to opt for postgraduates only.
I love giving lessons. When I give a good lesson and see the eyes of the pupils shining, I feel an immense pleasure. That is the time that I let loose my vanity, and it is enormously gratifying. At the same time, I am aware that the undergraduates need “us”, since it is the moment that we can exert a special influence on the students’ convictions. On the other hand, we need the undergraduates too. I feel that I need undergraduates, they are students who help me even when they are not talking, with their expressions, reactions, physiognomies. I realize when an idea is more powerful with them, and when it leaves them cold. Then I can rethink and try and go deeper into my idea and unfold it into another argument, to be more convincing. I think that undergraduate studies are a bit of the real Brazil, and postgraduate studies, of an artificial Brazil, precious, but limited, involving very few people. So I like the idea of undergraduate studies very much: they open up a field of comprehension and horizons for the lecturer.

Some thinkers have claimed that we are living through a crisis of civilization. What analysis do you make of humanity at this moment?
I confess that sometimes I feel rather perplexed. I’m not cut out, nor do I have the caliber, nor a basis for putting forward a very positive and conclusive answer. We are living with many new facts, that have now yet been digested or settled. The world has changed too much in the area of communication. Mobile phones, the computer, in short, this reality has invaded our day to day and evidently has effects and political consequences that we have not yet been capable of thinking out, we from the left, we socialists. This poses a challenge for us, it calls for us to think about what is new, but what is new does not arise pure and clear, it appears impure and confused. This makes it a hell of a job, and I think we have to face up to it. The answer to this question will not come from any theoretician, from any thinking, privileged, lucid head. It will come rather from the experience of the masses.

Globalization has shown itself to be a phenomenon of the contemporary world that excludes more and more. What reflection do you have to make on this phenomenon?
I think that in a way it represents the old theory of imperialism, which in several aspects has been roundly superseded, but which sometimes seems to me to be a forerunner of this disgrace that came afterwards. Imperialism does not serve as an explanation, but it is the manifestation of the perception of a problem that is being created and has been aggravated from the 20th century onwards: the problem of a very misshapen world-wide process that is controlled by a few, to the detriment of many.

You come from a family traditionally recognized as one of historical communists. Your brother, the writer and journalist Rodolfo Konder, has opted today for different paths. Has affection overcome the differences in the relationship?
I have never quarreled with my brother. I accept his option as his option, which is not mine. We have always had a very fraternal, very affectionate dialog. It is important to respect differences. I think that a personal, intimate relationship that has been built up over the course of many years is precious. Alliances and misalliances, the agreements and disagreements of politics are very unstable. Today, we are in agreement about a person, tomorrow, we diverge. One of the bad characteristics of the doctrinaire mentality is that is transformed into a recipe book for living and applying the doctrine even in relationships of affection, which are always richer than any doctrine will ever be able to recognize.

Are you an atheist socialist?
I think so. The role of religion needs to be rethought, the Marxist tradition has aged and needs to be reviewed. Religion and religious conscience are richer than Marx could know. He did not witness certain forms of religious conscience that were not typical of his time. This revision of mine and positive reassessment of the role of religious conscience does not mean abandoning my basic disbelief as an atheist. Recently, I had a meeting with Lutheran Protestants, and the conversation was so good that, at the end of it, they asked me: do you believe in God? Sensing what lay behind this concern of theirs, I answered: I do not believe in God, but I do have good relations with him.

Do you, like anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro (1922-1997), have Marxist and Catholic interlocutors, like Leonardo Boff and Friar Betto. Is there any harassment for conversion?
I’ve met Leonardo Boff a few times, but I’ve had more contact with Friar Betto, and we even traveled together to Cuba. He is an extremely agreeable person, incredibly nice. I was very glad to have known him. We became friends, a bond of affection was formed. He says some very funny things, such as, for example, that he would like to receive the news that I have entered a convent and become converted. He is very intelligent. Leonardo, Betto and others are people who have obliged me to revise my conception of what religious conscience was. You have to think of this, of the existence of people like this. It means that something is not exactly the same as old Marx thought it was.

Philosopher Márcio Tavares do Amaral, from UFRJ, after spending the greater part of his life as an atheist, converted himself and is a Catholic today. Have you ever thought about this possibility?
People should never say they would rather die. But from what I know about me, it would be very artificial, something rather unconvincing for me myself. I do have respect, but I do not see myself as a mystic, a religious person. That is not my natural inclination, it’s not typical of my making.

Do you believe that the difficulties experienced by Brazil, like poverty and illiteracy, will be successfully resolved in this beginning of the century?
I just have this hope. It would be impossible for me to continue a normal life unless I believed in a better country, if I thought that all this is something that has come to stay, something definitive. I think that people have to fight a lot, but this is a fight with a future. A difficult struggle in the present, but, according to all the indications, a struggle that is going to create conditions for a movement of transformation, which will surely overcome this disgraceful situation that there is in the country. Brazilian society is profoundly unjust, marked by unbearable inequalities, and I think that is now moving – it’s not just a dream. A complex movement, which is not restricted to one party and which can be noticed in several political parties. A movement that intends to bring together a sense of reality, an understanding of the limits, and, at the same time, a willingness to carry out the change. I think that this change is not going to be done on the old lines, but it is already starting get under way. I hope that it makes headway, and that depends on firmness, conviction and a strong sense of reality. I think that there are now people doing this. When did I ever think that a worker could have the possibility of becoming the president of Brazil? I don’t know what this situation is going to be like, but it is a situation that already represents a considerable change in Brazilian history.

You say that you are very afraid of vanity, but this is part of the human condition. How do you deal with this sentiment?
I am a vain person forewarned, with an eye on myself. I like myself, but I do not have total trust in myself. I keep up a certain distrust with regard to my ideas that are positive and favorable to what I do. In general, I realize that when I write a text, I look at it in a more critical way with the passage of time. At the first moment, I always tend to think that what I have written is better than it really is. As the years pass by, I go on giving the text a new dimension, and I see that is not as good as I thought it was. These feelings call for a certain sedimentation that only life can bring.