Florestan Fernandes: Explaining Authoritarianism Beyond the Fascist Experience

One of the main challenges for understanding the concept of authoritarianism and applying it coherently is the many different meanings it has, not only in the more academic theoretical debates but also in political organizations and in the media. Authoritarianism is a polysemic word and how one defines it usually speaks to what political project is being defended. This is a discussion with which we, as members of the International Research Group on Authoritarianism and Counter-Strategies (IRGAC), have grappled with intensively. It seems that the more one searches for an over-arching explanation of authoritarianism, the more we are forced to look into specifics, both regionally and in terms of the political spectrum. This makes it an ongoing challenge that calls into question the possibility of successfully mobilizing a term that can be conceptualized in very different ways, even if common ground can sometimes be found across its various applications. One of the scholars to investigate this topic was Brazilian sociologist Florestan Fernandes, who was also a political militant  and, later in life, was elected to federal congress as a member of the Workers’ Party (PT). Fernandes was concerned with the level of ambiguity behind the concept when he gave lectures about it in 1977 in São Paulo. The notes for his course were later made available as the book Apontamentos sobre a “teoria do autoritarismo” (Notes on the “Theory of Authoritarianism”), published in Portuguese by Editora Expressão Popular in Brazil.[1]

Authoritarianism joins the ranks of other terms such as populism and even democracy for being ideologically loaded, but communicated as if they were not and without proper context. An easy way out would be to reject using them. Instead, Fernandes opted to try to understand the problems with the mainstream use of the concept of authoritarianism, since it often led to mischaracterizations of socialist experiences, and to try to provide a general framework that would allow for its application in a more coherent manner. His objective is clear: to show how the hegemonic use of the concept only denounces the more “tyrannical” cases of abuses of power while ignoring the abuses committed every day by the bourgeois state. Fernandes explained that this understanding of authoritarianism was problematic because it often worked in a dualistic manner, with authoritarian regimes being simply placed in opposition to democratic ones; however, what does it mean to be a democratic regime after all?

Going back to the problem of democracy’s own complex meanings, Florestan went on to explain the association with democracy with the version of liberal democracy. Liberal democracy itself is no stranger to authoritarian practices, but if authoritarianism is explained only through the liberal lens, this form of regime escapes unscathed, and the very analysis of authoritarianism becomes emptier and incoherent, or even convenient for liberal ideology. In a system of liberal democracy, which Fernandes analysed elsewhere as indeed a limited kind of democracy, especially on the periphery of capitalism, there is an attempt to reconcile a certain amount of social and political freedoms, but only insofar as they do not threaten the class divisions present in capitalism. By associating itself with pluralism, the liberal democratic approach makes of itself the standard of measurement for liberties and freedoms, which allows for the normalization of capitalism’s own authoritarian practices of exploitation and dispossession, while condemning systems to the left and right that do not follow the same approach. The result is a theory that can somewhat successfully analyse authoritarianism in fascist regimes, but fails to identify the fertile soil fascist forces find in the accumulation of capital and the veil of tolerance that liberals offer fascists when they present little risk to, or even an opportunity to collaborate in, the growth of capitalism. 

Worried about this false opposition between authoritarianism and liberal democracy, Florestan Fernandes proceeded to argue that authoritarianism is by no means a trait exclusive to fascist regimes or outright dictatorships. Liberal theorists tend to associate it with a horseshoe theory of extremes, often equating far-right and far-left experiences and failing both to provide an adequate explanation of the purpose of each experience and to explain the role of authoritarianism in liberalism. Liberal democracy is organized in such a way to be compatible with, lenient towards, and even encouraging of authoritarianism, as long as it does not become the (public) face of its entire regime, but remains contained within a few sectors of society or in other societies, while serving a purpose of discipline and silencing that aids capitalist dealings. A major example of this is the level of mass incarceration in well-established liberal democracies such as the United States. In addition to this, a liberal democracy may stand against authoritarian practices at home while actively promoting it abroad. The United States once again exemplifies this relationship, when one considers the methods of torture it has secretly supported abroad, its maintenance of a military prison in Guantanamo Bay, and its support for openly authoritarian regimes abroad that cooperate with its imperialist interests. Under these circumstances, Fernandes explains, the liberal critique of authoritarianism is as formalistic as its promotion of freedom, as under capitalist democracy, the “authoritarian element is intrinsically a structural and dynamic component of preservation, strengthening and expansion of the ‘capitalist democratic system’”[2].

Since the book is based on lecture notes, a more thoughtful and complete critique of the limits of liberal capitalist democracy leave readers unfamiliar with Florestan Fernandes’s larger body of work wanting more examples of the authoritarian structure of capitalism itself. Two important texts for this discussion are Sociedade de classes e subdesenvolvimento (Class Society and Underdevelopment) and Revolução burguesa no Brasil (Bourgeois Revolution in Brazil). Yet even without prior analysis, it is possible to measure the extent of Fernandes’s critique of the limits of the theory of authoritarianism proposed by the defenders of liberal capitalist democracy. The short section where Fernandes explains how an elitist definition of democracy appeals to a perfect ideal and illustrates how the liberal theory of authoritarianism can be self-serving by labelling alternative practices of democracy, in post-capitalist arrangements, as inherently authoritarian for failing to live up to the capitalist version. To do so, the Brazilian sociologist brought in the work of a variety of thinkers to be critiqued, from Max Weber to Harold D. Lasswell and Abraham Kaplan. Under this idealist definition of democracy, “the defence of democracy is confounded with the defence of capitalism, and it blocks history”.[3] Thus, it also clouds our understanding of authoritarianism.

But of course, to identify the limits of the liberal theory of authoritarianism is one thing, but to pin down an alternative interpretation of the concept is an even larger task. In order to do this, Fernandes decided that the first step would be to create a detailed conceptualization of the relations of authority that would allow us to identify and isolate particular forms of abuse, the concentration of authority and the imposition of obedience.[4] From that, he could move on to understanding the historical forms of authoritarian relations typical of capitalism, but also in the transition to socialism. The first kind would deepen the understanding of authoritarianism under liberal democracy as well as in fascist regimes, whereas the latter would be useful to escape simplistic analyses that approach the contradictions of historical experiences towards socialism as “totalitarian”—a category that Fernandes rejects for its oversimplification of socialist experiences—or that hide or normalize authoritarian relations in socialist transition as simply necessary in the face of counterrevolution.

It is true that the concept of authoritarianism readily calls to mind fascist regimes. But Fernandes is careful to point out that authoritarianism is indeed associated with fascism, and not simply because fascism stands in opposition to liberal democracy. It is important to understand what makes authoritarianism a particular system of practices and ideas that can or may not be present in other political scenarios, but is always present in fascism. Even though fascist leaders may use rhetoric about being democratic, or “for the people”, this discourse is selective and often relies on racist tropes to ensure a division between the real people and those who stand against the proposed project. In that sense, authoritarianism must follow, as the purpose is to sustain a division, rather than to eliminate it. Authoritarianism is not an option, but one of the mandatory pathways taken by fascists to accomplish their purposes. Fascism realizes itself through authoritarianism, almost as a raison d’etre.

Yet one must be careful not to claim that fascism and authoritarianism are the same. Whereas the first comprises an entire regime and social project, the second speaks of practices, tendencies and particular ideological justifications of what Fernandes considers to be the “abuse and concentration of authority” (and, consequently, power). Fascism does not abuse power all the time, as it can make use of other tactics as well. But abuse of authority is a central characteristic. In the meantime, liberal democracy rejects abuses of power on the outside, but it lives with (and also depends on) certain types of abuse within. Given this, it seems that authoritarianism makes itself present from the far-right to the liberal center, but where does the left stand in this affinity or rejection of authoritarianism?

It is clear from the book that one of Florestan Fernandes’s main concerns in the discussion on authoritarianism and socialism was to critique how the liberal worldview, which treats authoritarianism as the antithesis of liberal democracy, has served to demonize socialist experiences and to distort the root causes of historical contradictions. In fact, Fernandes spends a good deal of the book refuting claims that equate socialism and fascism. This false equivalency is again in vogue, lending additional importance to Fernandes’ analysis today. Recent experiences with the far-right has led the press and political pundits to claim again that the problem lies in the “extremes” and that the solution is to move back towards the centre, in order to avoid the emergence of radical left alternatives.

An easy reaction to the simplistic claims of the horseshoe theory is to argue instead that socialism is about freedom and claim that any association between socialism and authoritarianism is part of anti-communist efforts and hostile historiography. Fortunately, Florestan Fernandes also found this reaction too simplistic and instead chose to contextualize the cases of authoritarianism within the left, explaining them as contradictions and promoting their resolution. To do so, he had to dive into the particulars of attempting a revolution in countries at the periphery of capitalism and what can be faced in terms of counterrevolutionary responses. At the time of the lectures, Brazil was still struggling against a military dictatorship, as were many neighbouring countries in Latin America.

History shows us that periods marked by authoritarian trends, actions and doctrines may arise under socialism, but, when they do, they are contradictions to be solved. In general, authoritarian periods are either the result of material contradictions, such as a state of war and famine, or political contradictions and mistakes by leftist leaders that need to be worked out and overcome, since they delay the realization of socialist democracy at the core of efforts of emancipation. The matter of delay is important in Fernandes’s argument, since he emphasized how socialism must culminate in freedom, equality and the abolition of class.[5] The horizon is an imperative, and conscious practices that delay it can be honestly associated with authoritarian relations if evidence points in such a direction. When there really are anti-democratic leaders, in the sense that they work against developing proper conditions for a workers’ democracy, they are themselves obstacles to sustaining socialism. Under fascism, on the other hand, anti-democratic leaders represent the system and political programme with great affinity. The false equivalence that treats socialists as inherently authoritarian results from the dominant view of authoritarianism, which has the double purpose of hiding liberal democracy’s own tolerance of and participation in authoritarian periods and instruments, and ruling out the socialist alternative as something for monsters and evil dictators.

For Fernandes, authoritarianism was indeed present in moments of socialist experiences, but they cannot be characterized by it alone, nor does authoritarianism accurately describe the objectives and planning behind these socialist projects. This difference in content and objectives helps to distinguish his approach from comparisons between socialism and fascism drawn by the liberal theory of authoritarianism, since the former strives towards social emancipation while the latter operates under capitalism. But even more so, there is the fact that even circumstances of authoritarianism under socialist transition would not be homogeneous. If building popular democracy is a task beyond the socialist state, new and alternative practices of working-class democracy may arise and even co-exist under authoritarian relations. Their task is to help to solve both the historical and more personal contradictions that sustain these relations by positing and building on the principles of a socialist humanism. For Fernandes, by building on the premises of changing the whole of society and not simply the relations of production, the socialist movement is stronger when the defense against counterrevolution demands arms and violence, without forsaking the continuous tasks of the socialist revolution to foster mass democracy.

Fernandes’ notes date from the late 70s, long before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 21st century experiences with imperialist economic blockades or the current contradictions of the Chinese process. Because of this, parts of the argument may sound outdated, for example regarding the potential for crushing counterrevolution in Russia, or the defense against a line of argument that considered the Russian Revolution as petrified.[6] The perspective of collapse was still far from Fernandes’s line of vision, although other Marxists such as István Mészáros could have been helpful in that sense. Even so, Fernandes’s arguments on the theory of authoritarianism represent a rare attempt to create a systematic understanding of the application of the concept, its failures and its potential, rather than just treating the mainstream liberal approach as the standard. Although this discussion is not rare in Marxist circles, Fernandes managed to fit a vast body of scholarship and critique in relatively few pages, making it both a foundational and introductory text for those wishing to understand authoritarianism beyond the standard liberal lens.

[1] Florestan Fernandes, Apontamentos Sobre a “Teoria Do Autoritarismo” (São Paulo: Expressão Popular, 2019).

[2] Florestan Fernandes, Apontamentos Sobre a “Teoria Do Autoritarismo” (São Paulo: Expressão Popular, 2019), 45.

[3] Fernandes, 64.

[4] Fernandes, 49.

[5] Fernandes, 57.

[6] Fernandes, 159.