Detail of Lenin in the work “Man at the Crossroads” (1934), by Diego Rivera. Mural in permanent exhibition at the Palace of Fine Arts of Mexico City. Image: Jaontiveros /Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.
The following interview was conducted on May 19 in Lisbon, at Beyond borders: people, spaces, ideas conference, organized by the Autonomous University of Lisbon.
Manuel Serrano: At the conference in Lisbon, you spoke about the confrontation between post-First World War New World Order internationalist ideologies. Why is this relevant today?
Reginaldo Nasser: At first, the First World War was understood as just another war, like the previous ones. But after the onset of the conflict, a new reality dawned – a reality which has more to do with society than with war itself: a society that was a mass society, capable of going out on the streets, of rebelling, of going on strike. What has this to do with war? Everything! War is a narrative, a derivative, a social product. War became an important variable within political parties. This had never happened before. The parties began to wonder: should we go to war or not? And if so, why? These issues, which seemed quite simple at first, were actually devastating because at that time it was unthinkable to say that one did not want to go to fight for one’s country. And why did this happen? At first, as a result of left-wing internationalism: if the war was a clash between imperialist powers, internationalists said, we want nothing to do with it. They were trying to counter the idea of national identity with internationalist identity.
War is a narrative, a derivative, a social product.
This issue became crucial as the war dragged on. There were also two important facts: in Germany, the Social-Democratic Party – which was then a Marxist party - was divided between the revisionists, like Bernstein, who argued that Marx had to be re-read and who did not oppose war, and those who, like Rosa Luxemburg, claimed that it made no sense for workers to get involved. Then, in Russia, after the February 1917 revolution, Aleksandr Kerensky, a Socialist, came to power. The United States, which had no interest in intervening but had hoped that Russia would have stayed in, entered the war when the Bolsheviks, who seized power in November 2017, decided to get out - Lenin called it an "imperialist predatory war".
President Woodrow Wilson and Lenin shared some ideas, although their thoughts, views, and proposals on many issues were very different. Wilson’s 14 points consisted mainly of ideas to improve the international scene, while Lenin’s April Theses proposed ideas for improving things within Russia. But they both agreed - at least nominally - on the peoples’ right to self-determination, a right that - despite the confusion that ensued after the war – Lenin, not Wilson, defended in the first place.
In any case, Wilson's proposals were at the time quite revolutionary and played an important role in what happened next. Cabinet diplomacy became less relevant as opposed to a diplomacy that had to take into account the masses and the street protests, and many of his ideas moved beyond Europe, especially to the colonies. There, ironically, and despite Wilson’s defense of the right to self-determination and his support for the disintegration of the colonial model, a model of mandates prevailed - that is, according to him, a temporary occupation of the territory to allow populations to acquire the capacity to govern themselves - which is, in some aspects, quite similar to the current notions of failed states and non-governed spaces.
President Woodrow Wilson and Lenin shared some ideas, although their thoughts, views, and proposals on many issues were very different.
MS: John Lewis Gaddis, one of the greatest experts on the Cold War, argues that afterwards, Lenin and Wilson traded places. He says: "Today, Wilson is remembered as a prophetic realist, while Lenin's statues are in the rubbish dumps of the old Communist world . "
RN: In the 60s the opposite happened: Lenin was at his peak. We must be careful with this reading, because it is so post-Cold War. Wilson's ideas work well in a world where there is no competition between great powers, but before a great opposing power like the Soviet Union, the game is another one altogether. The Soviet Union suspended Wilson. And when the USSR fell, Wilson recovered. But this is as far as theories go. A different thing is how people adhere to theories. Fourier said that people do not become Marxist by reading Marx, but by having a sense of injustice. In my case, for example, I stopped being a Marxist when I read Marx.
Fourier said that people do not become Marxist by reading Marx, but by having a sense of injustice.
MS: Do you think that we live today in between two worlds, two ideologies? Or is it just a struggle between those who defend an open society and those who defend a closed one?
RN: An ideology is a set of beliefs, ideas and values - we all have them. And differences always exist: class differences - as Marxism maintains - or individual differences - as Liberals argue. But this is a loaded word, and every time someone wants to end a debate, he or she comes up with a technical solution and makes it a point of repeating that the era of ideologies is over. Right now, in Brazil, there is a great debate is going on about the economy in which some are fond of saying that economics is something not to be discussed, that economics has nothing to do with values or ideologies – it is a technical question. However, ironically, we are living at a time when ideology is booming.
Marxist tradition adopted the idea that ideologies hide reality. This is important: ideology can be used to divert attention towards some things, while other things are happening. Marxism defended the idea that one should not believe in discourses, in official narratives, because they hide more than they reveal. For example, take the Federalist Papers: they are magnificent texts, but they were written by slave owners. They deal with a democratic, presidential, republican model of government, but not a word is said about slavery. What economic model do they defend? An unfair and racist one. They hide the debate, they conceal the values. Now, about an open or closed society: I am aware of the debate, but it is a construction. Open for whom? For the blacks? For Latinos?
Demonstrators holds signs that read in Portuguese: "Remove him now!" and "Get out Temer" referring to Brazil's President Michel Temer outside a presidential office building in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Tuesday, June 6, 2017. NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved
MS: How do you analyze the current economic and political crisis in Brazil? Do you think that Brazil can overcome a crisis that affects all areas of society?
Ideology can be used to divert attention towards some things, while other things are happening.
RN: Brazil went through an unheard-of phase in which an upward social rise of the less favoured classes - a socioeconomic ascent - occurred. That was during Lula’s two terms and the beginning of Dilma Rousseff’s. This is a fact. Jobs and social protection provisions were created - a great deal of them, from a historical perspective. But we felt that a reaction against this ascent was brewing, especially since in Brazil a kind of social rivalry has always existed and because, as we know from sociology, every social mobilization always entails a reaction.
Success at that time was due to several factors, but one of them was undoubtedly the favourable international conditions, which Lula skillfully took advantage of. But he also made some important concessions: banks and corporations benefited as never before, and to a much larger extent than the lower classes. Between 2007 and 2008, Brazilian corporations appeared under the international radar. They grew a lot - they had been growing, in fact, ever since the dictatorship -, especially overseas: they went to Angola, to Mozambique - among them, Petrobras, Vale do Rio Doce... It was something structural. They grew hand in hand with power. When the scheme began to fail, it was every man for himself.
A teacher of mine once gave me a particularly illustrative example: if you find a turtle perched on a tree, what question should you ask? Not what kind of tree it is, or what kind of turtle, but why is it sitting on top of that tree. Now, how can a judge in Curitiba - Sergio Moro - break five of the largest companies in the world? Answer: because there is a war between corporations going on in Brazil. Corruption is something that has always existed in the country and the question is why has this issue been brought up right now. If those five corporations were paying Globo, and now Globo attacks them, then it is because someone else is paying more. With Temer, we are witnessing more of the same: this is a structural problem. Corporations in Brazil are financing political parties: the PT, the PSDB, the PMDB. Corporations have no ideology.
As we know from sociology, every social mobilization always entails a reaction.
MS: You refused to give Globo an interview. Do you believe that the media in Brazil are nothing but mere manipulation and propaganda machines?
RN: I do not call them media, but media corporations. Glenn Greenwald, of The Intercept, lives in Rio, and he has had a huge impact. As he opened a section on Brazil in his publication, he sparked a chain reaction by criticizing journalists on Twitter for not being up to the standards of their social function. I was recently telling some American friends that they have no idea what things are like in Brazil, that in the US they are complaining about the state of the media, but at least CNN, the Washington Post or the New York Times still manage to be somewhat balanced. In Brazil this does not happen. The hegemony of media corporations in Brazil is a phenomenon that has no precedent in the country's history. There are no balanced, manipulation-free news. There is an initiative called Manchetómetro, a website that monitors the coverage of political and economic issues by the mainstream media, and that has no relationship whatsoever with political parties or economic groups. Lula's lawyer used it in his legal process. How many headlines in Estadão were favourable to Lula, or balanced? 1%.
There are no balanced, manipulation-free news in Brazil.
So, what happened in my case? I used to go to Globo quite a lot, but at one point I realized that they were editing my comments in an international program involving three guests. And the words they edited out were, in my opinion, significant. I then began to distance myself from them, and finally decided to resort to the principle of disobedience. Since I am very much for the Palestinian cause, I am in favour of BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions). This is a peaceful method, I am against the use of violence. So, I boycott them. Globo uses the same tone 23 hours a day, and they offer you an hour in which you can give your different opinion - and then they say they are Liberal. This is how the media are in Brazil, and it is getting worse.