A giant named Pablo González Casanova

Subcomandante Marcos with Pablo González Casanova in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, on December 13, 2007. Photo: Victor Camacho.

By: Luis Hernández Navarro

For years, every night before sleeping, the academic Pablo González Casanova [1] read poetry or theatre. From a very young age, as an inheritance from his father, he memorized some poems. With them, he fed his dreams and was a counterpoint to the social science concepts with which he worked during the day.

From this mixture emerged an original and powerful language for naming the world, in which the theoretical arsenal of various humanities, the most outstanding works of universal literature, the mathematical language and the infinite richness of life itself were creatively mixed. Like Karl Marx in Capital, he used mathematics – the goddess of science – as a method of reasoning and, later, as a tool to wrestle with the possible and the impossible.

Don Pablo: how do you work? How do your intellectual concerns arise? How do you make them? I asked him one morning, in the middle of a long interview in his cubicle at the Institute of Social Research of the UNAM, intrigued by his reflections on the confusion of peoples or the history of the use of lies in academia, as a form of mystification.

Smiling, he explained: “I have a very bad memory, although my old secretary told me that I have a good memory when I feel like it and for everything else, I have a bad memory. He probably didn’t lack some reason. I have a hard time remembering the names of people. But my associative memory is strong. That is the one that allows me to establish links and, in addition, corresponds to my training of a long time ago.”

And he added: “I have the most time to think when I’m shaving. It’s in the morning when I begin to establish bonds that I find attractive to continue thinking about them. It corresponds to information processes that come from different sources and that suddenly come together. That is the most frequent but not the only time.”

“No wonder you are always so clean-shaven,” I replied, laughing.

Author of 24 books, and coordinator, editor or director of another 32, in addition to countless academic articles, his work shows that those mornings in front of the mirror with the razor in his hand, were truly fruitful.

He never joined any political party, although while studying his postgraduate studies in Paris, he cherished the idea of joining the ranks of the French Communist Party. A man of ideas, but also of action, who navigated all his life in the turbulent waters of the left without capsizing in them, he defined himself as an organic intellectual of the university. In Latin America, he said, the university plays an extraordinary role. So much so, that he left the university, to a large extent, on July 26.

With Democracy in Mexico, don Pablo invented a new form of comprehending and studying the country. As Lorenzo Meyer has pointed out, the book is the first big general study of the contemporary political system made by a Mexican, from a Mexican and academic perspective. The work placed an agenda of investigation and a methodology for knowing the country at the center of the national debate.

He inaugurated lines of investigation and reflection on the national reality in force today, and established a key moment in the development of sociology: that of the full maturity of the social sciences and the end of the monopolies of foreign studies on the country.

When the work was published, Carlos Madrazo was president of the PRI. González Casanova integrated, with great imagination, American sociology with Marxism (whose essence, according to him, is the theory of exploitation), history and statistics. He reflected creatively on marginalization, internal colonialism, the dual societies, to analyze the relationship between modernization and democracy, and between economy and politics. He concluded that the lack of democracy produced by exploitation and internal colonialism prevented the country from moving towards representative democracy and development.

These same theoretical tools, which he continued to develop throughout his academic life, served to analyze South America and the Caribbean in a different way. They were a central tributary of the flowering of Latin American sociology, which, as Don Pablo told Claudio Albertani, is “one of the most original thoughts of our time, not only in the academic field, but in the political and revolutionary field.”

Don Pablo González Casanova (Comandante Pablo Contreras).

Together with thinkers such as Immanuel Wallerstein, Samir Amin and François Houtart, don Pablo also dedicated himself, looking from below, to building the appropriate instruments to read societies with the eyes of the oppressed. His work allowed assembling the theoretical puzzle to understand alter-globalism and the new national liberation struggles in Asia and Africa.

However, despite his enormous intellectual weight, González Casanova developed an extraordinary ability to listen with simplicity and patience to the simplest people. And he reaped something that very few intellectuals can boast of: speaking to a motley mass of social and political leaders belonging to the most diverse organizations, and getting them to listen to him quietly and with interest.

Carlos Payán

Convinced of the need for an independent press, he contributed time, energy and dedication to the founding of La Jornada. “I remember in dreams,” he wrote, “that night when several friends arrived. More than my memory, I was awakened by their dismay. They had just quit a newspaper that was becoming increasingly difficult to work for… When they told me of their resignation, I remember saying to them with some irresponsibility: And why don’t we start another one? It was one of those youthful rudeness that sometimes has real effects. They were thankful for the fact that in the group of founders would be Carlos Payán and Carmen Lira.”

At nightfall on February 29, 1984, more than 5,000 people gathered in a room of the Hotel de Mexico. It was the presentation in society of the project to found La Jornada. Don Pablo took the floor. “Because we are optimists we fight. Because we have hope in destiny, we are critical,” he said. And he concluded amid a long ovation: “We have decided to found a national society, which will carry out its tasks in the written press. The first task will be to found a daily newspaper.”

Since then, a close relationship has been established between the environment and the intellectual. His affection and admiration for Carmen Lira and La Jornada remained undiminished over the years.

Always committed to the struggle for democracy, independence and socialism, Don Pablo made defense of the Cuban revolution and vindication of José Martí’s thought one of the great causes of his life.

It wasn’t the only one. Another one was the struggle of the native peoples and Zapatismo. In 2017, Subcomandante Galeano presented him as a man of critical and independent thinking, who is never told what to say or how to think, but who is always on the side of the people. That is why, he explained, in some rebellious communities he is known as Pablo Contreras.

And at the height of that relationship, on April 21, 2018, González Casanova, 96 years old at the time, became Commander Pablo Contreras of the CCRI-EZLN. To be a Zapatista, Commander Tacho explained, you have to work and he has worked for the life of our peoples. He hasn’t tired, he hasn’t sold out, he hasn’t given up.

When, in 2018, at the presentation of one of his books, they asked don Pablo to share his recipe for reaching 96 with such intellectual strength, he responded: Struggling and loving. Participate. We are facing an unprecedented period in human history. Our struggle is no longer just for freedom, justice and democracy, it is in fact for life itself.

Faithful to the cause of the wretched of the earth, Pablo González Casanova explained that what is new in politics is to not be moderate, leftist or ultra. What is new is consistency. If there was something throughout the life of that giant known as Don Pablo, it was to be a coherent man.

[1] Pablo González Casanova died on April 18, 2023 at the age of 101. We thank him for his many contributions to critical thought and to love and struggle.

Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada, Wednesday, April 19, 2023, https://www.jornada.com.mx/2023/04/19/opinion/004a1pol and Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee

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