Caio Prado Junior

Image_Stela Maris Grespan


Commentary on the work of the communist historian and politician

The biggest enigma posed by Caio Prado Júnior, as a person, citizen and thinker, is his radical rupture with the existing social order. I take the word in its etymological sense, emphasized by Marx when he affirmed that to be radical is to go to the root of things. I'm sorry for the lost time. I never asked him anything about his complete break with his class; and the writings that focus on his trajectory do not shed light on this vital period, from 1924 to 1928 and from 1928 to 1931. What happened in the evolution of critical social awareness, which guided him through transformations, so fast and deep? There was intellectual and political effervescence in the city of São Paulo. The facts are known. And São Paulo, as the only typically bourgeois city in Brazil, touched the minds of sensitive beings, led workers to social unrest and progressive intellectuals to an attitude of almost repugnance in the face of a painful situation of misery, exploitation and oppression.

He was not the only one in the rebellion. Oswald de Andrade, Pagu and other modernists raised the banner of anthropophagy and political nonconformity as a sarcastic and symbolic condemnation of prevailing omissions. However, no one who came out of the elites reveals the same tenacity, congruence and willingness to go to the end, to the roots of things. Modernism only explains a tendency towards renewal, sometimes tempered (or intemperate) with oscillating manifestations of iconoclasm.

Caio Prado Júnior displays a continuous acceleration that runs through a quick transition from bourgeois-democratic radicalism to intransigent proletarian-communist opposition. Keeping himself in the same class position, he reversed the batteries of his combat and became a militant, a leader politician (in 1935 he was already vice-president of the National Liberation Alliance) and, reiterating the change of identity, in 1947 he became - became deputy for São Paulo (by the way, an innovative and exemplary deputy).

It is obvious that the political rupture responded to the frustrations provoked by the fate of the Democratic Party (PD) and by the betrayal of the “revolutionaries” of 1930 to the ideals of subversion of order. There was, however, another parallel rupture, of a moral nature: not the replacement of mores, but the resocialization of the person within antagonistic mores. The passage involved a rebirth into life, which sprouted and grew into a confident communist in the option, on which he had gambled everything from class loyalty to intellectual relationship with the world and political behavior.

The five years of law school also do not explain an evolution that converts intellectual radicalism into transgression. The key institution in the selection and preparation of civil guardians of order always feeds the appearance of a struggle of prodigal sons, who submerge in the contestation of customs, cultural conservatism and political reactionaryism; and then they are reborn, like the Phoenix, to safeguard the austerity of customs and the law as the last reason for the defense of order. What is certain is that Caio Prado Júnior could not escape this lapse of tolerated freedom. And it should be recognized that, while it lasts, this freedom is seminal. It furrows the imagination, forging a short-lived compensatory insurgency. However, she is creative and leaves scars. It encourages a lot of forbidden or destructive reading and excursions: even now graduates are among the university students who read the most, within a very vast field of irradiation.

So I suppose modernism and student activity played a role. But these do not seem decisive. I would say that they relied on psychological reinforcement of the mind's root predisposition oriented towards moral non-conformity (by the way, the year 1920, spent at Chelmsford Hall, in England, has the same meaning, in reverse: as a demonstration of what a civilized civil society is ).

If the proposition of the riddle is correct, the answer comes from an inner moral rupture. We, within Marxism, feel some difficulty in accepting an explanation based exclusively or predominantly on a moral rupture. It seems that we are slipping towards an idealist centrality, which puts several converging ruptures (ideological, social, political, etc.) on the same level. However, there is a moment of personality crisis in which the collapse of mental structures combines with the search for other contents, with a complete reorganization of its perceptive and cognitive bases. Attempts at a revolution along radical lines (participation in the PD and expectations related to the “liberal revolution”) precipitated the psychological and political process in another direction, but congruent, unveiled by the Communist Party (PCB).

This is the meaning of a complete moral break, as it is not confined to certain circumscribed ends: it is unleashed and continues. The paradigm is provided by Gandhi (but can be inferred from similar shifts experienced by Marxist revolutionaries like Lenin or Trotsky situated within the confines of their home class positions). The advantage of this interpretation is that it allows us to understand the reasons for the consistency of Caio Prado Júnior, when confronted by the party (in disobedience to the pragmatism of discipline and hierarchy and, even, in conflict with extra-Marxist nuclear conceptions of the essence and directions of the socialist revolution).

Therefore, there is no “mechanical” connection between the disappointments and the political reorientation, the initial militant enthusiasm and the publication in 1933 (at the age of 26) of his most vibrant book and, at the same time, the one that explicitly claims its character Marxist: The political evolution of Brazil and other studies – Essays on the materialist interpretation of the history of Brazil.

The subtitle contained a confession to “scandalize”, a testimony that the rupture had advanced so far that it did not evoke a conventional “black sheep”, but a revolutionary thinker, with whom bourgeois society would have to come to terms. A “youthful explosion” that needs to be understood in the historical context, in terms of the author's conception of himself and history. The book slips through logical, descriptive and interpretative lapses, which would deserve repairs from experienced Marxists. But who could be, within our cultural cosmos, more Marxist? We still carry limitations that only a hard and long experience in handling historical materialism would invite us to overcome. The contradictions are not located in the background and do not shed light on the “hell” of life in the tropics and on the reciprocal determinations that linked manorial oppression to the dynamics of slavery oppression, of slaves and “poor free men”. The “slave-owning State” remained standing, within the perspective of those who saw it as a constitutional, parliamentary and democratic State.

However, Brazil's political evolution it is a mature shoot and corresponds, as a Marxist work, to the intentions of Caio Prado Júnior. On the incipient and purest level of his rupture, he outlines the version of Brazil that would animate his further investigations and gives his response to members of the dominant social class and to the PCB, which he had joined. To those, so that they could discover that they built and reproduced, on a daily basis, the chain within which they trapped and degraded their social conscience, the human condition and the absence of historical solutions within false standards of democracy. To the latter, to assert himself fully as a free revolutionary intellectual, ready to advance in the conquest of the social revolution and in the emancipation of the excluded, endowed, however, with his own ability to submit to discipline and party guidelines. He shared their strategy: reform first; and later destroy that gigantic prison, designated as the “modern” state.

However, it would not lend itself to serving as a pawn to any “tactical” conciliationism or opportunism. The book highlights, mainly in the primordial essay, the meaning it carries and the developments it requires from the author so that the construction of a new society would make possible the creation of a truly democratic State open to improvements coming from below.

The following work, published nine years later (Formation of contemporary Brazil – Colony), adheres to another intellectual and political horizon. More refined, with the Marxist and historian, it proposes a Cyclopean ambition: a four-volume investigation of the formation and evolution of Brazil, from the colonial slave regime to the present day. As a historian, Caio Prado Júnior was concerned with filling in the gaps in the descriptive history of most scholars of the subject, and with correcting the pitfalls of works of historical synthesis, some of high quality, which prevailed at that moment. As a Marxist, he intended to forge a masterpiece, which would serve as a foundation for socialist and democratic currents (especially the PCB) to formulate a solid representation of the weaknesses, path and specific objectives of the Brazilian revolution.

Only the first volume was published, which demonstrates a soundness in the empirical reconstruction and a firmness in the theoretical outlines that the previous book did not reach. So, he had time to absorb the offspring of cultural transplantation, mediated by the Faculty of Philosophy, Sciences and Letters, which he intelligently took advantage of, particularly in the areas of geography and history. It was a pity that he did not do the same with reference to sociology, because that is where the negative consequences of the most serious omissions or vacillations flow. A talent for combining various disciplines, however, enriches historical inquiry and makes the contribution more comprehensive and illuminating.

Colonial society and the slave-owning mode of production finally find the interpreter who would consider them as a whole in status nascendi and in its becoming. It has not only seduced erudite and obligatory readers. It permeated Caio Prado Júnior's historical imagination, converting him into an inventor and propagator of his own vision of Brazilian history. This vision was contained in the first book. However, it is in the second work that she expands as the source of her great discoveries and the objectification of her broad limits.

As a whole, it is closer to “positive” history than in other of his achievements. This does not prevent it from clarifying, sometimes definitively, the specific problems of our colonial world. Starting with the sense of colonization and the unmasking of the interests of the Metropolis, of the masters and of the great mercantile exploitation, until the brutalization of the slave as a thing and of mestizos and “poor” whites as excluded and rabble. Therefore, therein lies the scaffolding of his studies on the agrarian question and mercantile capitalism, subjects that would endlessly attract him, although they cannot be properly explored here.

The space also does not allow for a discussion, summary as it may be, of its Brazil's economic history (1945), which compelled him to look to the vast, long-lasting panel as a reference point for concrete problems. If some corrections were imposed, these were not, however, large enough to impose one of the global conception.

His most famous book was published in 1966, the brazilian revolution – and has exceptional political importance. Contains a bold challenge to dictatorship. But it constitutes a challenging reflection and a repudiation of the “Marxist” mechanism, a significant revision forged after Stalin's rise to power and the restraining influence of the Third International.

In this work, Caio Prado Júnior makes a severe criticism of the deviations from the route of the socialist revolution, programmed and imposed as a deformation of Marxism; the inverted and dictatorial use of democratic centralism; the gross simplification of the Marxist theory and practices of class struggle and revolution on a world scale. The dependent, colonial and neo-colonial countries had been put in the same bag and in the same straitjacket, which presupposed that the revolution could be “unique”, monolithic, directed according to a single formula, based on the guidelines of the Third International and the Union Soviet.

From this angle, the book takes up Marxism as a process, which is born and grows within the working classes and in the search for their collective self-emancipation, through the construction of a new society.

The core of reference is Brazil at the time of the military dictatorship and at the height of the Cold War. What impels Caio Prado Júnior to resume the themes of his investigations, lecturing on the colonial landmarks of the economic, cultural and political domination of the bourgeoisie, the weakness of this bourgeoisie in terms of its historical situation, associated and dependent, and the parameters of the conquest of citizenship and democracy as requirements for agrarian reform and other social transformations. He is exposed to various theoretical and practical criticisms, including that of the reformist, gradualist, and phased path of implementing socialism. Nevertheless, he recovers the understanding of Marx and Engels regarding the permanent revolution, according to which it is a product of the class struggle, not of improvementist or humanitarian utopias.

On that occasion, Caio Prado Júnior reached the climax of his greatness as a Marxist, social scientist and historical agent. Going against the grain, he produced a synthesis of Brazil's evolution and an in-depth review of concrete issues, intrinsic to certain political dilemmas, such as agrarian reform. He sought to broaden Marxism to adapt it to the changing historical conditions of the periphery, Latin America and Brazil. And he demonstrated how the intellectual, playing his roles and without transcending them by the effectiveness of parties, can reach the peak of demanding and creative militancy.

We don't need to agree with him on everything to enhance his Marxist profile. It is enough for us to see his courage in facing the risks of making mistakes and brutal political repression alone, to admire him even more within and above his production as a historian, geographer, economist, cultivator of logic and the theory of science, a man of action and representative politics.

*Florestan Fernandes (1920-1995) was professor emeritus at FFLCH-USP, professor at PUC-SP and federal deputy for the PT. Author, among other books, of The Necessary Challenge (Rile up).



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