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The victory of a vocation

Former communist leader Jacob Gorender contributed to the scholarship on the history of Brazil’s colonial period and its more recent armed struggle

Mário Alves (left), Sara Orenstein, and Gorender at the offices of the newspaper Estado da Bahia in 1942

Antônio Gaudério / FolhapressMário Alves (left), Sara Orenstein, and Gorender at the offices of the newspaper Estado da Bahia in 1942Antônio Gaudério / Folhapress

Prior to Jacob Gorender’s imprisonment by the Brazilian dictatorship in 1970, his professional profile could be easily defined: communist leader. But after his release two years later, weary of 30 years of constant struggle within the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB) and the Revolutionary Brazilian Communist Party (PCBR), Gorender definitively embraced his intellectual calling. Although he never finished his undergraduate studies, he became a blend of writer and historian. “We are paying tribute to an intellectual who trained and matured outside the walls of any academic institution. He was an extremely rare case of a successfully self-taught man, who is even worthier of our respect and admiration because he suffered so many reversals of fortune,” said Prof. Alfredo Bosi on June 20, 2013, at a meeting of the faculty of the School of Philosophy, Language and Literature, and the Humanities of the University of São Paulo (FFLCH/USP), in which the professor explored the trajectory of the Marxist thinker, who passed away in São Paulo on June 12 at the age of 90.

Jacob Gorender (1923-2013) was born in Salvador, Bahia, the oldest of five children of poor Jewish immigrants. His father, Nathan, came from Ukraine and his mother, Anna, from Bessarabia. At the age of 17, he was already working as an archivist at O Imparcial, a newspaper in Salvador, where he went on to serve as a reporter and then editor. This was the first of the many papers for which he wrote, a good number of which had ties to the PCB. In 1941 he began studying at the Salvador School of Law, and the following year his friend Mário Alves recruited him to the communist party. At 20, he enlisted to fight in World War II and saw seven months of combat in the Apennines and Monte Castelo, Italy.

When he returned to Brazil, he threw himself into the life of a militant. He dropped out of college, moved to Rio de Janeiro, and became a “professional revolutionary,” as he used to say, devoted to party activities. He was in Moscow from 1955 to 1957 to take a training course for party cadre. It was at the Congress of the Communist Party that was held during his stay in Russia that Stalin’s crimes and the Soviet Union’s violent repression of the Hungarian reform movement were first denounced. He met his future wife, Idealina, while he was taking the course.

Gorender at home in 1999. His work won acclaim

Family Archives Gorender at home in 1999. His work won acclaimFamily Archives

When Brazilian president Jânio Quadros stepped down and João Goulart was sworn in to replace him in 1961, the leadership of the PCB, headed by Luís Carlos Prestes, adopted a conciliatory, collaborationist stance. The party’s left wing – which included Gorender, Alves, Apolônio de Carvalho, and Carlos Marighella, among others – criticized the leadership’s “right-wing deviations” and advocated more intense social struggle and greater autonomy vis-à-vis the Goulart administration. The 1964 coup d’état met with no resistance. Rifts within the communist movement widened and the left-leaning opposition lost its challenge to the Prestes group in 1966. One year later, during the sixth congress of the PCB, Gorender was expelled from the party, with no right to a defense.

In 1968, Gorender founded the PCBR, together with Alves and Carvalho. In 1970, he was arrested and tortured at the Tiradentes Penitentiary in São Paulo. At 47, he was the oldest one in his jail cell and was surrounded by young men. He decided to give a course on the history of Brazil and to lecture on political issues.

While behind bars, Gorender also translated works from French and German; his wife smuggled these out of the penitentiary and took them to the former Abril Cultural publishing house, which released them on the market. “Shortly after leaving prison, he continued doing translations for the publisher, and my mother served as his ‘front man’,” says their daughter Ethel, who is a pediatrician. In the 1970s and 1980s, Gorender played an important role in the publication of the series Os Pensadores (The thinkers) and also coordinated Os Economistas (The economists), both of which were successful collections sold at newsstands. “In addition to his translations, Gorender wrote two notable introductions to translations of Marx: one for Para a crítica da economia política e outros textos (Towards a critique of political economy and other texts) and the other for O capital (Capital), both from 1982,” says Marcelo Ridenti, professor of sociology and researcher at the University of Campinas (Unicamp).

Mário Alves serving in Italy during World War II (n.d.)

Family Archives Mário Alves serving in Italy during World War II (n.d.)Family Archives

In 1978, Gorender published O escravismo colonial (Colonial slavery) (Ática, 1978; Perseu Abramo, 2011), in which he analyzed Brazil’s colonial development. “There was a traditional line within the PCB, defended by Nelson Werneck Sodré, who believed that Brazil had a feudal past, represented by large landholders, and that its economy was focused inward,” Bosi explains. According to this argument, the country was merely a supplier of natural products like sugar and coffee, a factor that delayed its industrialization. The other thesis, formulated by Caio Prado Júnior – likewise a communist – posited that all production was meant to be sold on the foreign market; in other words, capitalism had been present in Brazil since the early sixteenth century.

“In his book, Gorender introduces a third path, which he believed to be more appropriate to Brazil, the Caribbean, and even the southern United States,” says Bosi. In Gorender’s opinion, the system could not be labeled “feudal” because it supplied and sold products. Nor could it be considered capitalist, because it was not sustained by free workers. “His thesis was that slavery presented its own unique mode of production within the colony, and this was a huge theoretical advance in terms of the question,” says Bosi. What the slaves produced was sold but there was no social contract. Much to the author’s and the publisher’s surprise, the book fueled a major controversy and was a success among the academic audience. It was Bosi, then serving on the editorial board for the publishing house Ática, that recommended that they publish the book.

His second important book was Combate nas trevas – A Esquerda Brasileira: das ilusões perdidas à luta armada (Battle in darkness – The Brazilian left: from lost illusions to armed struggle) (Ática, 1987, out of print). Marcelo Ridenti, who believes that this book remains the most thoroughgoing work on the topic, says, “He brought his talents together, as a historian, a memoirist, and a journalist.” According to the journalist Alípio Freire, who was one of the young men who attended Gorender’s prison classes, the book led the way in the effort to understand the “splintering of the left after 1964” from a coherent perspective, especially the era of armed struggle.

Gorender wrote six more books and received an honorary degree from the Federal University of Bahia (UFB) in 1994, at the age of 71. From 1994 through 1996, he was a visiting professor at USP’s Institute of Advanced Studies (IEA) and at the FFLCH. The intellectual production of this Marxist thinker won acclaim both inside and outside the walls of academe.