The bourgeois revolution in Brazil



Commentary on the recently republished book by Florestan Fernandes

A social class is not built alone. Without the spur of the dispute for power with another class, eventually also in formation, historical inertia imposes itself and opens space for all sorts of aberrations. If there is vitality, the social groups effectively or potentially in competition as possible embryos of classes find ways to sustain the most important dispute of all: the one aimed at the continued exercise of power in society.

Why remember it here? After all, some will say, this is what can be expected from any political analysis concerned with the direction of a society in the process of historical formation such as Brazil's. If we accept this judgment without further ado, we will end up doing injustice to the sociologist who is most indebted for formulating the problem of the constitution of Brazilian society based on class dynamics, Florestan Fernandes. Much that appears, albeit indirectly, in what has been written on the subject in recent decades has been proposed more clearly and more consistently by Florestan on repeated occasions, but especially in a fundamental work.

And it's this book, The bourgeois revolution in Brazil, which just in time has just been reissued, in an especially well-crafted edition that inaugurates a new edition of the works of that greatest figure in Brazilian Sociology, under the care of Bernardo Ricupero. The editor in charge is well known for his studies on Brazilian thought, including a book on XNUMXth-century romanticism and the idea of ​​a nation in Brazil, which Florestan would certainly have consulted if it had already been available in his day.

In terms of editorial care, the book offers much more than would normally be expected, to the point of locating the exact source of vague and occasional references, as occurs in the small debate on Florestan's work that closes the volume as an afterword. Another unusual feature of the edition is that the text on the back cover, written by Bernardo Ricupero, far from being a mere presentation of the work, actually forms a vigorously interpretive mini-essay. Using the jargon, this is a must-read book, even for those who already have another edition.

Why, after all, read or reread this difficult book, which brings together texts written at different times, always with a strong argument (if there is an author who does not tolerate small talk, it is Florestan)? Both in the preface and on the back cover the central question appears. The answer lies in the actuality of the problems it deals with, together with the peculiar way in which Florestan organizes his analysis. that makes that book a challenge for anyone who intends to face the present moment with a broad view and not restricted to the daily news.

The bourgeois revolution is at stake. When fully realized, this involves the historical movement in which a class with a bourgeois appearance becomes dominant to the point of imprinting its mark on the capitalist mode of organization of society. In the Brazilian case, which interests Florestan, this bourgeois class that seeks its affirmation as such represents a major part in a complex that involves two problems for it. On the one hand, the persistence of former dominant groups secondarily linked to capitalist advance. On the other hand, the commitment of social segments reduced to subordinate parts for asserting themselves socially and politically, that is, constituting themselves as a class opposed to bourgeois domination. Simplifying to the extreme, old farmers at one end and workers at the other.

The book examines the complex dynamics of the relationships that are established over a time scale that extends from the constitution of the independent nation in 1822 to the height of the authoritarian regime under military aegis in the transition from the 1960s to the 1970s. long path, with three parts, of which the second is an outline of the theme of the “competitive social order”, central to Florestan's thought. As a whole, it leads from the “origins of the bourgeois revolution” to the “bourgeois revolution and dependent capitalism”, culminating in the decisive chapter reserved for “the autocratic-bourgeois model of capitalist transformation”.

The rigorous treatment of dynamic relationships over time and more static relationships within society in each time frame, associated with the examination of changes in the pattern of relationships with the external capitalist scenario serves precisely to show the essential. What is demonstrated in the book is the historical transfiguration of the bourgeois revolution in an autocratic-bourgeois model. A unique intellectual feat in Brazilian sociology, only possible when the search for the truth of the facts in the scientific record is associated with the militant search for an egalitarian and fair standard in relations in the political record.

It can be argued that the idea of ​​“bourgeois autocracy” plays a fundamental role in Florestan's analysis as it approaches the end of the contemplated period. It contains a synthesis of what gives the book its acute relevance. Beyond the analysis of the divergence between the autocratic order and its exact opposite, the democratic order, in which the consolidation of the first impedes the advance towards the second, the question of autocracy is rich enough for the selection of a presumed one (because it is not finds this way in the book) its characteristic, which invites developments.

The fact is that it combines two opposing trends, which, examined together, help to highlight an interesting aspect of the book's validity today. The expression bourgeois autocracy involves two parts. One, more “hard”, corresponds to the concentration of power in autocratic terms, solid and forceful, with all its effects. The other, more malleable and plastic, corresponds to the bourgeois class (or the set of bourgeois classes or even fractions of classes, divided according to areas of economic activity, as Florestan analyzes.

Such problematic unity results in important effects on the dynamics of class relations, which are transmitted to the political and social dimensions, although not linearly. This derives from the inherent instability of such an arrangement, in which the asymmetry between class (open in principle to advances in the political and social order) and the closed autarkic pattern of exercising power is evident. Although this formulation is not found in the book, it expresses much of the character and dilemmas of that tense historical figure that is the bourgeois autocracy.

In his analysis, Florestan unravels the web of political and social relationships that form in each period, from national independence to the height of the dictatorship when the book was published, in 1974, until the foreshadowing of its decline to give way to the “new republic ”. In this it demonstrates step by step how the Brazilian bourgeoisie is giving up the full exercise of its power to constitute itself as an entire class, contenting itself with guaranteeing access to advantages distributed in the space of the dominant bloc without committing itself to effectively becoming a leader.

This means that the asymmetry between class and autocracy is resolved for the bourgeoisie by assuming a defensive position, less willing to energetically seek power in society and secure it through legitimacy than to be satisfied with a merely advantageous position at every moment. And that with the security, obtained by the action, in this case offensive, in the containment of the advance of the other great rival class, that of the workers.

The complex game that is thus set up in the scenario of political and economic power does not end there, but penetrates into all dimensions of society, generating its most important effect. It consists in the constant sliding from one position to the other and, as a deeper and more important effect, the incorporation within each institution and social group of that dynamic by which the rigid and the malleable interpenetrate and generate an environment that is unclear, pasty. , which permeates society as a whole.

And, in doing so, it contributes to generating that pattern in which the autocratic impulse viscerally adheres to the routine performance of the ruling class. The thing is that autocracy, as a concentration of political power in a self-centered position, is not a resource at the disposal of the bourgeoisie, despite what the title of the book might suggest, but in reality it gains autonomy and at every moment threatens to impose its ability to define the rules about the game.

The result is continuous confusion, in all positions and levels of society, between what is relatively malleable (in this case, class, but this applies equally to institutions) and what is imposed without further ado, with the consequence that everything which presents itself as open to consultation and deliberation slides towards institutionalized coercion. This while the institutional system liquefies, subject to constant friction between what is malleable and what is rigid in the organization of power at all its levels. The big loser in this dynamic is undoubtedly the democratic order, continually hampered in its development.

Finally, there is no lack of spurs for reflection in this book, which has justly been re-edited with such high-quality editorial work.

*Gabriel Cohn He is Professor Emeritus at FFLCH-USP. Author, among other books, of Weber, Frankfurt(Quicksilver).


Florestan Fernandes. The bourgeois revolution in Brazil. Sociological interpretation essay. Organization: Bernardo Ricupero. São Paulo, Countercurrent, 2020.

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