Notes on independence in the Americas

Regina Silveira, "To Be Continued... (Latin American Puzzle)", 2001.


The denial of past revolutions has the current political objective of strengthening the idea that any radical change is harmful.

Much of Latin American historiography dedicates its best efforts to describing, almost always in biographical style, the trajectory of individuals considered national heroes. Like the militarist school, it is dazzled by the detailed chronicle of warlike events. In this intellectual environment, attempts to structurally explain the continental historical process from a socioeconomic perspective, placing it in its international context – without necessarily underestimating the role of certain individuals or key events – can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

For this reason, addressing the character of the process that resulted in American independence, undoubtedly one of the great themes of the nineteenth century, is essential for a fair political understanding of the present.

Were they revolutions or did continuities with the old colonial system prevail? If we accept to qualify them as revolutions, were they social or political? What was the dominant social class? Was there real participation of the exploited classes? What has changed in the lives of reduced indigenous people, enslaved or “free” blacks, day laborers1 or small poor peasants with the end of the Colony? In short: was the new order progressive or reactionary?

I will propose some reflections here, taking the risk of incurring a certain schematism.

I am among those who argue that they were revolutions. However, its character is determined by the historical period – the era of bourgeois-democratic revolutions, inaugurated by the French Revolution of 1789.2 or, if you prefer, by the Independence Revolution of the thirteen British colonies that gave rise to the United States between 1775 and 1783 – an international context that established the material premises, essential tasks and limitations of the process on both sides of the Atlantic. Naturally, the extent to which these general tasks were realized differed from country to country and from region to region.

In the case of the Americas, the process of crisis and disintegration of the European colonial system was twofold: on the one hand, it meant a continental struggle to emancipate the colonies from the metropolises; on the other, a parallel and no less violent struggle to form the new independent nation-states. Such is the historical importance of the XNUMXth century for our continent.

This forces me to dwell on another element that, in fact, I consider to be the starting point: the metropolis-colony relationship and the essence of the colonizing enterprise. I refer to the debate over whether this enterprise was feudal, capitalistic, or neither. I do not agree with the thesis – anchored in Eurocentric reasoning, which attributes to all peoples an automatic succession of modes of production, a linear and anti-dialectical view of history – that the colonizers mechanically transplanted feudalism from medieval Europe to America, as liberalism and Stalinism claim. Nor do I agree with the diametrically opposed view that proposes that the European conquest of the Americas represented the almost automatic implantation of a capitalist mode of production.

The thing is more complicated. The essence of colonization was dictated by the process of shaping the world market, governed by the relentless law of primitive capital accumulation in Europe. This new international division of labor on a world scale attributed to the colonies a dual role from the XNUMXth century: suppliers of precious metals, raw materials and enslaved labor force; and consumers of manufactures produced by the most advanced nations of northern Europe, of which the kingdoms of Spain and Portugal, due to their chronic industrial backwardness, began to act as intermediaries.

The large-scale, world- or regional-market-oriented production of exchange values, rather than the creation of closed fiefdoms, was the driving force behind colonization.

In this sense, Oscar Creydt – a historic leader of the Paraguayan Communist Party – is wrong to say that “there is no doubt about the essentially feudal character of Paraguay as a Hispanic colony”3. We could cite other formulations in this sense. This staging vision, which contaminated most of the left, was never more than a theory to justify alliances with supposedly progressive bourgeois sectors, willing to open the doors to a national capitalism in Latin American countries, characterized – even in the middle of the XNUMXth century – as feudal.

No. The reasons for Latin American economic backwardness are not to be found in the supposed “feudal” or “colonial slave-owning” past, as the Brazilian Gorender argues.4 and other Stalinist theorists, but in incorporation, from its dependent genesis, into the long process of birth of world capitalism. It is not admissible to confuse feudalism with peripheral capitalism.

So, did the capitalist mode of production exist in these lands since the XNUMXth century? No way. If the “meaning” was capitalist – the looting of the Americas served to accumulate capital in the colonial metropolises –, the form of production was not. It was based on forced labor, not “free” or wage labor. The typical colonial relations of production – in the parcels mitarias e yanaconas,5 black slavery, people or indigenous reductions, etc. – were all pre-capitalist. The “free” labor force was marginal and only imposed itself at the end of the XNUMXth century.

What a historical paradox! The colonizing enterprise, indispensable for the subsequent definitive triumph of capitalism, was carried out through non-capitalist relations of production. A contradiction that only dialectical logic can explain. Capital came into the world, in the words of Marx, “[…] oozing blood and mud from every pore, from head to toe […]”6. The Rio de la Plata Basin, and specifically the former Province of Paraguay, which I studied in more depth, was not oblivious to this global process. Our region contributed its share of blood and mud to build the first civilized world.

Well, if in America there was no feudalism – which is not necessarily the same as serfdom or landlordism – but a commercial and usurious capital that sucked the social surplus out of our economy in an insatiable and brutal way, it is not correct to say that the Latin America's independence process was a cycle of social revolutions – that is, of anti-feudal bourgeois revolutions.

It is clear that there have been social changes. However, in essence, it was a sequence of political revolutions.7 In other words, they were, essentially, anti-colonial bourgeois revolutions. The embryonic native bourgeoisie, already owners of important means of production, decided to confront (militarily) the Spanish Crown only when it realized that the latter would not negotiate any concession of real autonomy. The aim of the fathers of the American nations – who, we insist, at the beginning of the XNUMXth century constituted a faction of the ruling class – with this emancipation crusade was not the welfare of the plebs, but to get rid of colonial intermediation to trade directly in the international market. , particularly with the burgeoning British Empire.

These were not social revolutions because, in the end, the strongest sectors of the native bourgeoisie never sought to change production relations or extend democratic rights to the oppressed, but rather to wrest control of political institutions from the Spaniards. In Marxist parlance, they did not want social structural change, but superstructural change.

At the structural level, probably with the sole exception of the case of Haiti, the independences did not substantially change the relations of production between social classes. Pre-capitalist and capitalist relations of production continued to coexist and combine unevenly, as in the colonial period. The position of Latin American nations in the world system of states and in the international division of labor has not changed either – basically, they continued to be suppliers of primary products and consumers of manufactures.

The independence revolutions in the Americas are an expression of a time when the bourgeoisie was ready to destroy any obstacle to the development of the capitalist mode of production. This task, in the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries, meant economic and, to a certain extent, democratic progress. But among all the individual freedoms and political rights that young liberalism proclaimed, what really mattered was the sacrosanct freedom of enterprise, founded on the “natural right” to private property.

That is why no bourgeois revolution, not even the most radical, has resolved all the demands for democratization in different societies. And they couldn't have done it, because they were revolutions in the service of imposing the rule of a new exploiting class.

Some controversies. There are authors who, looking at the French Revolution and European cases, deny that the independence revolutions of the XNUMXth century constituted bourgeois-democratic revolutions.

They say, for example, that there was no native bourgeoisie – a mistaken premise. There was a native sector that owned land, cattle, mines, enslaved people and parcels, or engaged in a part of commerce and usury. Obviously, there was no industrial capitalist sector or a bourgeoisie with the characteristics of the XNUMXth or XNUMXst century. It was a still nascent faction of the ruling class, enjoying good relations with the colonial bureaucrats until the terminal crisis in the Peninsula. What that local faction did not have – and this problem was resolved by force of arms, after many vacillations – was control of the state apparatus, that is, the management of foreign trade, the tax system and, of course, the armed forces.

Let's go back to the concept. If the main mission of every bourgeois-democratic revolution is to remove any obstacles to the flourishing of national capitalism, in the colonies this meant that the main task for the full development of a national bourgeoisie and an internal market was to liquidate the colonial relationship. In Marxist terms, national self-determination was a precondition for the development of local productive forces.

Therefore, they were bourgeois revolutions. They did not and could not follow the pattern of the “classical” liberal revolutions of European nations: these were metropolises, and the Americas were colonies. The case of the Americas was a variant: anti-colonial bourgeois democratic revolutions.

Under the conditions of a colony, if it is true that the most benefited by independence were the native landowners, it is also correct to state that the end of metropolitan rule allowed a broader achievement: the emancipation of oppressed nations, as a whole, from foreign rule. This, no doubt, was a progressive fact for the American people.

Naturally, each class or class sector entered this national struggle with opposing social interests. The interests of the big native bourgeoisie could not be reconciled with the interests of the so-called popular sectors. This was the background for class divisions within the “patriotic forces”, although, at various times, there were broad polyclassist fronts against the colonizer.

Some deny, on the other hand, that these were revolutions because, with the Europeans expelled from power, elements of continuity with the colonial period prevailed. This demonstrates a misunderstanding of the essence of the process: there are no “pure” revolutions. The transition from a colonial state to national bourgeois states does not mean that no legal or institutional remnants of the old Spanish order have subsisted in these new independent states. In the United States, black slavery survived the emancipatory feat enshrined in 1776. In Paraguay and other former provinces under Spanish rule, for example, the slavery of Africans, the reductions of indigenous peoples or the normative body of The Seven Departures8 remained.

There is no linear historical process. As the new always emerges and intertwines with the archaic, in all cases there were elements of continuity. But this formal aspect, although not unimportant, does not define the process, it is not qualitative. What is decisive is that the metropolitan state has lost political control of the colonies.

Another argument, common among liberal authors who study the history of Paraguay, is that the independence crisis led to a decline in trade, and with it the prosperity of the last decades of the colony disappeared. First question: prosperity for whom? Second: if the criterion is the volume of trade, was it preferable to remain a colony governed by the tenuous reforms of the Bourbons?

The dictator José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia (1766-1840) himself responded to this problem in 1818, when he admonished one of his border commanders, telling him: “We never called, nor can it be called, mercantile traffic common cause. Apart from this, we Americans of today call and understand as our common cause the freedom and independence of our countries from every foreign or alien power.”9

The current political objective of denying past revolutions is to strengthen the idea that any radical change is harmful. The truth is that the bourgeoisie, as soon as it managed to consolidate itself as the dominant class, began to fear its own golden era, its own revolutions. His cowardice is proportional to the power he concentrates. But this does not impugn the revolutionary character of American emancipation.

In short: American nations became politically self-determined. From colonies, they became – not without crisis – bourgeois national states “in formation”. This represented immense progress. This political shift paved the way for economic changes that took place, more or less belatedly, in every former colonial territory. To give us an idea, the formal, that is, legal, abolition of parcels in Paraguay it took place in 1812, that of the indigenous reductions in 1848, and that of black slavery only in 1869.

In order to properly study the particularities of each case, it is essential to understand the essence of the process, taking them as a whole. While every social revolution, by its scope, is “political”, not every political revolution is social.

One last point. Paraguay was not an island during the XNUMXth century, as preached by reactionary nationalism and classical revisionism. His fate was bound up with the resolution of this general struggle. This means that, without the victory of the continental independence revolution, there would simply be no independent Paraguay.

*Ronald Leon Núñez holds a doctorate in economic history from USP. Author, among other books, of The War against Paraguay under debate (sundermann).

Translation: Marcos Margarido.

Originally published in the newspaper ABC Color.


1 Day laborers: semi-proletarians who worked as agricultural workers or in the extraction of yerba mate, but generally maintained a plot of land.

2 The French Revolution inflicted a mortal blow both on the French colonial empire, with immediate consequences in Haiti – the first triumphant black revolution and the most radical anti-colonial process – and, through the Napoleonic invasion of 1808 – which deposed the Bourbons and initiated a irreversible process of crisis in its American possessions – on Spanish colonialism.

3 Creydt, Oscar [1963]. Historical Formation of the Paraguayan Nation. Asunción: Servilibro, 2004, p. 126.

4 Gorender, Jacob. colonial slavery. Sao Paulo: Attica, 1980.

5 There were two types of parcels in force in the Province of Paraguay: the mitaria order and original encomienda (yanacona). In the first, men aged between 18 and 49 were obliged to pay their tribute to the I order working, theoretically, for sixty days a year. At order yanacona, the indigenous people and their families lived directly with the I orderunder conditions similar to slavery.

6 Marx, Carl. The Capital. Volume I. Buenos Aires: Editorial Cartago, 1956.

7 In the era of bourgeois revolutions, the political revolution translates into the struggle for state power – this being a common feature of economic and social revolutions –, however, not between antagonistic classes, but between factions of the proprietary and dominant class. The 1830 and 1848 revolutions in Europe are often referred to as political revolutions.

8 The Seven Departures it is a normative body, drawn up in Castile during the reign of Alfonso X (1252-1284), to impose legal uniformity on the Kingdom. It is one of the most important legal works of the Middle Ages. It prevailed unevenly in Hispanic America until late in the XNUMXth century.

9 Official letter to the Commander of Concepción, 23/06/1818. ANA-SH, v. 228, no. two.


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