"The legacy of Luiz Carlos Prestes, once it is taken up by the new generations, poses a threat to the ruling classes. That is why the official history and the media strive to keep silent about it, or when they are compelled to remember him, they try to distort his ideas and slander his actions"
This book by Anita Leocádia Prestes is first and foremost a fascinating journey through more than three decades of Brazil's history.
Luiz Carlos Prestes - The Fight for a Revolutionary Party (1958-1990) * allows the reader from first to last page, to follow the path and the struggles of a man who left indelible footsteps on the path of his people.
The author writes as a historian. Though she is Luiz Carlos Prestes' daughter, there is only one paragraph in the book about the family relationship with the revolutionary who was general secretary of the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB) for almost forty years.
Anita Prestes has devoted years to the study of documents that are unpublished or had been forgotten and opens the results of this research to the public.
By offering readers a historiographical version rooted in facts she is able to debunk the "existing falsifications and misrepresentations about Prestes and the Communists, which have been spread by the official history produced by intellectuals committed to those holding power."
The work is not openly apologetic. But Anita Prestes presents a portrait of Prestes, through his attitudes and policy decisions, which leads readers to the conclusion that he was a revolutionary who made almost no mistakes.
It turns out that for humans there is no such thing as a perfect revolutionary, and Prestes was no exception.
Anita Leocádia Prestes, a professor of History of Brazil at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, was born in the Gestapo's Barnimstrasse prison in Nazi Germany; her mother, Olga Prestes Benário , had been extradited from the Brazil of Vargas, and was interned while pregnant and then transferred to an extermination camp where she died.
The first part of the book covers the period from the March 1958 Declaration that defined the Brazilian revolution as democratic and national to the coup d'état of 1964. The second part focuses on events that occurred between the fascist military coup and the 1979 amnesty. The third part shines a light on Prestes' ongoing struggle against reformism and in defense of a revolutionary communist party.
The coup intensified the differences already existing in the Brazilian left, particularly in the PCB, which was struck by the split that gave rise to the formation of the PC do B, which today is a social-democratic organization, integrated into the system, but which initially was Maoist.
In those years, two prestigious communist parties, the Chinese and the Cuban, backed forces in Latin America that advocated armed struggle to seize power.
Luiz Carlos Prestes considered that in Brazil the minimum conditions for an assault to take power through armed struggle had not yet been reached; he favored the intensification of mass struggle in the fight against the dictatorship. But most of the Central Committee, far removed from his position, insisted on this tactic.
This was inseparable from the old illusions that within the national bourgeoisie the "progressive" sectors were anti-imperialist and that nationalist officers in the army would eventually clash with the hard core of the dictatorship.
I lived in Brazil, as a militant of the PCB, during the terrible years of the Institutional Act # 5 (AI-5), which installed a fascist-like terror in the country.
At that time I participated in the quartet -- Jarbas Holland, Milton Coelho da Graça, Rodolfo Konder and I -- who directed the weekly Fato Novo, which Anita Prestes quotes. The director was Paulo Duarte, a progressive liberal teacher, but the newspaper had been created to defend positions contradictory to the party. Its editorial line was so ambiguous that I had to walk away when it praised President Medici and General Albuquerque Lima and criticized the Pope and Jean Paul Sartre for having taken a stand against the Brazilian dictatorship.
Speaking against the pleadings at an Extraordinary Conference Sao Paulo State, Prestes lambasted the capitulationist line then on the rise rising and accused the Communists of São Paulo (and other states) of putting themselves "in the wake of the bourgeoisie, abandoning in practice the struggle for progress and national emancipation. " These and some other leaders, in pursuing the illusion of winning "local power" were in practice transforming "the Communist Party into an exclusively or at least primarily an electoral organization."
The Sixth Congress, held in strict secrecy in 1967, reflected the deep divisions opened in the Party. The theses maintained the previous policy orientation, arguing that "the current stage of the Brazilian revolution is (...) anti-imperialist and anti-feudal."
Prestes' position was difficult. The Tricontinental Conference in Havana, in the previous year, stimulated tendencies in the PCB that advocated armed struggle, in the forms of urban and rural guerrilla warfare.
Prestes made concessions to the reformist tendencies. His goal, writes Anita Prestes, was to maintain unity "and defeat the leftist positions, more dangerous at that time because they could lead to the disintegration of the organization."
For the secretary-general of the PCB the defeat of the dictatorship would only be possible "through mass action, which requires the Communists do nothing that separates them from the masses."
A faction of the so-called "revolutionary current," led by Carlos Marighella, was quick to break party discipline, opting for a strategy inconsistent with the decisions of the Congress.
The dissenters, however, themselves split when Marighella denied the need for a revolutionary party and founded with Câmara Ferreira the Action for National Liberation (ALN) organization.
Three ex-leaders of the PCB, Mario Alves, Apolonio de Carvalho and Jacob Gorender, then created the Revolutionary Brazilian Communist Party or PCBR.
Anita Prestes cites the facts, but does not follow the struggle of these organizations, limiting herself to pointing out that all were quickly annihilated by the army and the police, including the PC do B.
With a half-century now elapsed, it is possible to recall that dramatic period without passion and come to the conclusion that after the AI-5 was in effect, no strategy for taking power would have worked. I knew some of the Communists who broke with the PCB. The influence of Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Franz Fanon was identifiable in the positions advocated by the leaders of the different organizations that opted for armed struggle. Almost all of them, especially Marighella, earned my respect. I disagreed with them and their revolutionary romanticism, but they lived and died as revolutionaries, consistent with their ideals as communists.
After an armed insurrection which lasted 3 years in the Twenties, Prestes was named "The Rider of Hope"
Exile and return
The richness of the documentation of Anita Leocádia 's book makes it difficult to provide summaries that clarify the different stages of Prestes' struggle she illuminated in it.
In 1971, the leadership of the Party, confronted with the intensification of repression and the collapse of the clandestine apparatus, decided that Prestes had to leave Brazil. Soon some of the most prominent members of the CC also left the country.
The central organ of the Party, A Voz Operária (The Workers' Voice), was edited in Paris starting from 1976, under the responsibility of a core of leaders who advocated reformist theses incompatible with the positions of secretary general.
Prestes, exiled in Moscow, with other comrades, could only follow the events in Brazil with much difficulty, caused by the lack of contacts and lack of reliable information.
Anita Prestes recalls that, while opposing tendencies that wanted to reconcile with the "bourgeois democracy" and the officers, Prestes defended tenaciously the battle against the dictatorship, having as his goal a "new kind of [advanced] democracy" that would be "a form of transition to a power with a revolutionary character."
He insistently denounced the fascist and terrorist escalation by the Ernesto Geisel regime (who Mario Soares of Portugal characterized as a "very human general"). But his words were not heard and his isolation increased.
I ran into Luiz Carlos Prestes once again in Moscow in June 1979. We were both in treatment, occupying adjoining rooms in a hospital in the Soviet capital. During the weeks we were there I had the opportunity to hold long conversations with him; for me they are unforgettable.
I remember that when I heard him evoke episodes of the Prestes Column, the coup of the generals after the resignation of Janio Quadros, and especially when he commented on the splits within the PCB and rightist deviation of the party I insisted repeatedly that he begin writing his memoirs, because his life's struggles had become pages of the contemporary history of Brazil.
A few months later, covered by the amnesty, Prestes returned to Brazil.
He found the party unrecognizable, with a central committee controlled by a majority that broke with the revolutionary tradition of the Party and the values and principles of Marxism-Leninism.
The Letter to Communists, released by the secretary-general in March 1980, triggered a head-on shock.
"A communist party -- he asserted in the letter -- cannot, in the name of a supposed abstract democracy that is above classes, abdicate its revolutionary role and assume the position of a brake on popular movements, as guarantor of a pact with the bourgeoisie."
The CC's gallop to the right was no surprise to me. Aggravating the revisionist option, leaders who returned from Western Europe were contaminated by the Euro-communism that flourished in the French, Spanish and Italian parties.
The same thing happened with outstanding intellectuals of the Party. In meetings with Leandro Konder and Carlos Nelson Coutinho, as they passed through Lisbon on their way back to Brazil, I sensed that they would contribute to increasing confusion in the ideological debate. They were talented thinkers, and had the merit of spreading within Brazil the best ideas of Antonio Gramsci and George Luckacs, but while they remained Marxists, they had absorbed a heavy dose of worrisome euro-communism in, particular the Italian version that was pushing the PCI toward its destruction.
I met Prestes three times in Lisbon. At first, he gave an extensive interview to "O Diario," which I directed. And he participated in a grand rally at the Plaza de Toros, with Álvaro Cunhal [of the Portuguese PC ] and Rodney Arismendi of the PC of Uruguay.
At last, he had broken with the party, and was returning from a tour of Europe in which he had been received by Nikolai Podgorny, Georges Marchais and Enrico Berlinguer [resp. of the CPSU, PCF and PCI].
It was gratifying to see this comrade and friend once more, but also painful because the reunion was marked by the omission of topics that I avoided addressing so as not to wound him and because of the admiration he aroused in me.
His leaving the party in my opinion was a political mistake. It was inside the PCB and not outside it, in my opinion, that he should lead the fight against the "renovators" (a word that would be used years later by Portuguese ex-communists) of the Executive Committee of the CC that imposed its will on the Party. Left to these people, the PCB fell into a situation that old militants defined as "orphaned."
Dropping step by step under the direction of Roberto Freire -- today leader of a party [Socialist People's Party] integrated into the capitalist system, the PCB has followed the course of the Italian party, the gravedigger of the PCI. It tore apart its program, renounced the symbols and Marxism and eventually changed its name.
I witnessed this agony when I returned to Brazil in 1989 to cover the first presidential elections following the end of the dictatorship. It pained me to verify that Prestes supported Leonel Brizola's candidacy. The gaucho caudillo, a populist adventurer, was then a shadow of the politician who in 1961 led the resistance to the coup of the fascistic troika of Odílio Deniz, Sylvio Heck and Grun Moss. I met him [Brizola] in Lisbon, where he cultivated an intimate political relationship with Mario Soares, the leader most responsible for the Portuguese counter-revolution.
No revolutionary -- I repeat -- is perfect.
I never saw Prestes again. But in a brief passage in Brazil when he already completed 90 years, we spoke on the phone. I was in Sao Paulo and he invited me to visit him in Rio. It was not possible.
I concur with Anita Prestes when she, at the conclusion of her important book, writes:
"The legacy of Luiz Carlos Prestes, once it is taken up by the new generations, poses a threat to the ruling classes. That is why the official history and the media strive to keep silent about it, or when they are compelled to remember him, they try to distort his ideas and slander his actions."
Today his great revolutionary path and his struggle deserve the admiration of authentic communists worldwide.
He didn't live long enough to see the resurrection -- that's the right word -- of the PCB, the party of which he was secretary-general, as a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary organization.