Democracy and socialism: Carlos Nelson Coutinho in his time

Fritz Wotruba, Simplicity and harmony, 1928-949.


Presentation of the recently republished book by Victor Neves.

Democracy and socialism: Carlos Nelson Coutinho in his time is the main critical study, to date, entirely dedicated to the work of one of the greatest Latin American thinkers of the 1943th century, Carlos Nelson Coutinho (2012-XNUMX).

In seven hundred pages, Victor Neves investigates the intellectual path of the thinker in order to offer the reader, in the words of Michael Löwy, “the first systematic study of the set of (his) work”. The result of more than five years of research, this work allows José Paulo Netto to designate its author as “the first great analyst of the theoretical-political thought of Carlos Nelson Coutinho”.

This reading constitutes, therefore, a beautiful opportunity, in the week of the anniversary of Carlos Nelson Coutinho's birth, to remember his trajectory and his ideas. Even more, it offers a propitious occasion to continue dialoguing with his legacy in the XNUMXst century, and to prepare future paths for overcoming the capitalist social form – a task claimed by Victor Neves in his study, as a motivation for his dedication to the thinker.

For this reason, the specialist follows in the footsteps of Carlos Nelson Coutinho, from his birth to his death. From his native Bahia to his move to Rio de Janeiro, passing through his exile in Italy and his French influences, the author accompanies Carlos Nelson Coutinho in his theoretical and political development. Together with him, he travels through his various routes and theoretical, cultural and political influences, from the Brazilian Communist Party to the Italian Communist Party, his discussions with economic thought linked to the French Communist Party, his militancy in the Workers' Party and in the Socialism and Freedom, and how each of these paths marks his theoretical-political reflection. There is also no lack of treatment of various aspects of his perennial reference to the two great communist philosophers of the XNUMXth century, Gramsci and Lukács.

The systematic study of his texts, interviews with key actors in the life of Carlos Nelson Coutinho and the meticulous examination of personal archives, the reading of all of Coutinho's published writings, are combined with a careful socio-historical and political knowledge of European contexts , Latin American and Brazilian corresponding to each moment of the intellectual's life. With this procedure, Victor Neves explores the various influences and representations that forged the world view of Carlos Nelson Coutinho, a leading thinker of the articulation between socialism and democracy – or, referring to the title of one of his books, between Marxism and politics.

The book thus constitutes a true intellectual biography in its fullest sense. Far from being a mere descriptive study, the sociology of the intellectual requires, with due investigative rigor armed with a conscientious conceptual apparatus, to reach a great challenge: “to understand a thinker in the spirit of his time, that is to say, the social meaning of his time that he himself was capable of capturing and synthesizing, raising him precisely to the level of “representative intellectual”. In the words of Antônio Gramsci, quoted by Victor Neves, “writing its history means nothing less than writing the general history of a country from a monographic point of view” (p. 26).

Through the history of the life and work of Carlos Nelson Coutinho, it is, in fact, more than a century of Brazilian history that is explored, as well as the history of the western proletariat of the second part of the XNUMXth century. A thinker immersed in the history of the proletariat, thanks to this biography, we dive into the collective memory of socialism, so often silenced, simplified and denied. The challenges he set out to face, his various concrete expressions, his contradictions and also his failures are examined.

Every Marxist thinker in the second part of the XNUMXth century had to face a set of questions, inherited by the new generations, and it is from this perspective that Victor Neves embraces this collective history. Among the most important, the book highlights the following questions: how to interpret the defeats of the so-called “real socialism” of the XNUMXth century? Is there still a possible way out of overcoming the capitalist way of life? What can we learn from the past and in what frameworks is it necessary to elaborate the emancipation of male and female workers? How do our defeats (and our victories) determine our own self-image and our ways of intervening in the world we want to transform? To what extent can liberal democracy be disputed to end human exploitation?

The author reminds us that this last question often appears in a more immediate reality, in the form of a self-evident statement, as if it were devoid of history and debates within the proletariat itself. He shows us, on every page, that the work of Carlos Nelson Coutinho is proof of the opposite. The thinker stood out for influencing the process of confluence towards a broad democratic consensus, thought of as a necessary path allowing to reach socialism. Such a theory and position do not refer to evidence beforehand, but they are the result of a historical moment, in which a conception of the State asserted itself and guided political strategies, taking shape in Brazil in the so-called “popular-democratic strategy”.

And, as Mauro Iasi reminds us, the search for the historical and social foundations of the most consensual political positions constitutes a fundamental step to “understand the period we are in and the possibilities of its future” (p. 19), carrying out together with the working classes an inventory of your own journey. It is up to the reader to use the tools offered by this book to explore the paths taken and the possibilities for the future of this strategy.

*Annabelle Bonnet is an associate researcher at EHESS, a postdoctoral fellow at the Graduate Program in Social Policy at UFES and a collaborating professor at the philosophy department at UFES.


Victor Neves. Democracy and socialism: Carlos Nelson Coutinho in his time. 2nd edition. Marília, Anti-capital fights, 2021, 700 pages.


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