Democracies in Latin America

Image: Berk Ozdemir


Claude Lefort and the democratic transformation in Latin America

Despite his passage through the University of São Paulo in the 1950s, the influence of Claude Lefort's ideas in Brazil was only felt in the 1980s, when they spilled over into the academic environment, also affecting intellectuals and groups from a left that was reorganizing itself in that period. twilight moment of the dictatorship.

After more than a decade of existence, the dictatorial regime was facing difficulties. He tried to carry out a transition process, which he described as “slow, gradual and safe”. Military and civilians sought, in the midst of the local effects of a serious global economic crisis, to anticipate conservative alternatives that would prevent a collapse, when signs of discontent in society with the government were growing.

At the center of the political debate was the question of democracy. But what democracy?

The consenting opposition mostly defended a pact that would allow the return to the rule of law, encompassing the enactment of an amnesty for those persecuted by the regime, which ended up also benefiting those responsible for human rights violations. The pact would later (in 1985) be successful when, the direct elections being frustrated, the agreement with part of the political base of the dictatorship prevailed, which allowed the indirect choice of Tancredo Neves for president.

But Brazil had changed under the dictatorship. And changed a lot. The so-called “economic miracle”, the result of the developmentalism of the military, unlike what had happened in other dictatorships in the Southern Cone – where ultraliberal economic policies predominated – had allowed an exponential growth of the working classes in the cities and in the countryside, private, in fact and in right, of an autonomous trade union organization. At the same time, the deterioration of the living conditions of large sectors of the population, had as counterpart the self-organization of many social segments, to face the vicissitudes of the daily life.

The emergence of a new trade unionism and social movements was marked by strong economic and social demands that did not find an echo in the legal opposition or in those groups that supported it from the shadows. This reinforced the requirement to autonomy, that marked the claims and actions of these new subjects. While the parliamentary opposition defended an agenda of an eminently political-institutional nature, growing sectors of the alternative opposition advocated broader democratic reforms, including economic and social demands.

This picture, synthetically and schematically sketched, explains why Lefort's ideas, even with many mediations, found receptivity in nuclei of what we could call social left, being formed in Brazil at that time.

All segments of the Brazilian left – from the traditional to the armed groups – had suffered a terrible political and military defeat during the 1970s. This defeat was overdetermined by the crisis of the orthodox paradigms that had, for decades, informed the lefts in Brazil, in America Latin and worldwide. Even before the fall of the Berlin Wall (in 1989) and the self-dissolution of the Soviet Union (in 1991), the Polish crisis and the emergence of the Solidarity union, internationally pointed to the possibility (or, at least, the need) of an alternative post-communist, which would also be post-social-democratic, in view of the misdeeds of European social democracy at that time. The events in Poland had a strong repercussion in Brazil, not only because they fed anti-communism on the right, but also because they gave trade union and leftist sectors arguments to strengthen their claims for autonomy and their opposition to the local regime, especially when General Jaruzelski took office. power in Warsaw.

The reconstruction of the left necessarily went through this social left, orphan of paradigms, but in whose practice it was possible to detect new concerns such as those around the notion of autonomy and a requalification of democracy.

The issue of autonomy gained importance mainly in the labor movement and in those urban social movements organized, most often territorially, and was reflected in numerous studies that emerged in the period. With regard to the labor movement, these studies showed that their economic demands (mainly wages) or democratic demands (freedom and union autonomy) were articulated with demands for change in work processes and in factory discipline. Exploration and domination appeared as an indissoluble pair to be fought. This broadening of the emancipatory agenda of the working classes drew attention – albeit for a few – to the working conditions in countries that were euphemistically designated as “really existing socialism”.

These themes were also dealt with at the time by Cornelius Castoriadis, who had shared with Lefort, for many years, militancy in the Socialism and Barbarie group. Although with different approaches and emphases, which is not the case here, Lefort and Castoriadis offered elements of reflection for this left that maintained a close relationship with an effervescent society. The physical presence of the two in Brazil and the translation of their works into Portuguese strengthened this influence.

It is important to highlight that, despite a certain parochialism on the part of the Brazilian left, the political opening that was taking shape brought with it – as in many other countries, in similar situations – an environment of intense debate of ideas that pointed to the renewal of the local political culture. . It is in this climate that the works of Lefort and Castoriadis are published and discussed in the country.

During this period, there was a growing differentiation in Brazilian opposition regarding the notion of democracy. It is important to highlight, however, that this differentiation did not imply disregard of the centrality that the democratic issue should have in antidictatorship mobilizations. It is evident that the recent past of arbitration contributed to an extreme appreciation of democracy and human rights. All had, in some way, experienced the drama of authoritarianism in their daily lives.

For the working classes and the social left, even though, at first, economic issues or those related to freedom of union organization were privileged, the way was opened for a broader and more dynamic understanding of democracy. This dynamic may have been a first perception of the democratic invention.

Other sectors of the opposition favored the “return to the rule of law”, a process that mixed a liberalism with few roots in Brazil and the old conciliation practices, the latter with deep roots in the country.

It was important for workers to understand that democracy was not a creation of the bourgeoisie, reasoning qualified by Lefort as a political “aberration”. Democracy was a difficult and continuous popular conquest, in which the workers had and would have a decisive role.

Among intellectuals, the renewal of political philosophy and history studies in the 19th and 20th centuries, reminded us that the European bourgeoisies had risen and consolidated their domination through package liberalism, when not making use of openly anti-democratic political processes.

"La legalité nous tu”, proclaimed Odilon Barrot, in January 1849, in the French National Assembly as Prime Minister of Louis Bonaparte. It is one of the many expressions of active symbiosis of an emerging bourgeoisie with the Old Regime, as Arno Mayer wrote.

Democracy did not need adjectives, even if it was not irrelevant to know which classes or social groups had hegemony in society. Democracy's de-adjectivation could not be replaced, however, by its imprisonment in a set of principles and rules that, even if necessary, did not account for the ongoing economic, social, political and cultural changes, resulting from the action of the new subjects who passed through to intervene in the public space, changing its configuration.

Marilena Chaui, presenting The Democratic Invention, Claude Lefort, in 1983, notes that “democracy is invention because, far from being the mere conservation of rights, it is the uninterrupted creation of new rights, the continuous subversion of the established, the permanent reinstitution of the social and political”. [P. 11]

This formulation starts from an observation and, at the same time, points to a new horizon. The realization, anticipated by a few decades ago, is the failure of the Soviet revolutionary experience and those who were inspired by it. A failure that had two emblematic moments in 1989 and 1991, as we have pointed out – the fall of the Wall and the end of the USSR. Of course, this finding is not shared by everyone. Those who relativize the meaning of the communist collapse do not think so, through historicist explanations (national and/or international conditions in which these experiences developed) or subjectivist ones (distortions caused by the “cult of personality”).

Lefort, as well as Castoriadis, who had embraced Trotskyism decades ago to explain the misdeeds of Bolshevism, abandoned Trotsky's pioneering analyzes and built around the notion of totalitarianism, an explanation for the regime that was established in the USSR for more than 70 years. More than that, Lefort considered that any leftist project required understanding the phenomenon of totalitarianism, without which there would be the risk of repeating it.

In this sense, the reach of Lefort's criticism was more restricted here. The discussion of totalitarianism was more European. Brazil and South America were confronted with the persistence or residues of bloody dictatorships, which had been implemented with the support of the United States. The fall of the Soviet Union, even for those who criticized its economic and political model, introduced, however, a change in the international correlation of forces unfavorable to the local left.

This reasoning could not, however, elude a larger question. The revolutionary paradigm that, for decades, inspired the Latin American lefts, ceased to exist, even in countries – like Brazil – where the subjects considered as protagonists of social transformations – workers – not only persisted, but, to a large extent, they had strengthened.

The enormous inequalities that marked the continent in the post-dictatorial period demanded the construction of projects of change that made social inclusion the axis of transformations and, consequently, called for new economic policies.

This requirement became more urgent as the economic policies applied in the period of transition to democracy in many countries – marked by an ultraliberalism, often inherited from dictatorships – aggravated inequality and cast understandable doubts on the superiority of democracy vis-à-vis vis-à-vis dictatorial regimes.

It is in this context that the thesis of democratic revolution gains relevance, as a process that allows tangible transformations, within the framework of institutions – expanding them – to give way to the “new characters” (according to the expression of the late Eder Sader) that entered the political scene of our countries.

But the democratic revolution's lack of greater substance conspired against its success, less when its supporters were in opposition, more when they came to government.

In the past, the left wielded the notion of strategy - expression with clear military connotations – to design what appeared to be a safe revolutionary path towards its ultimate libertarian goals. The paradigm shift, or the practical abandonment of any paradigm, paralyzed political action or subjected it to a dangerous eclecticism.

The conquest of governments by leftist forces or by coalitions in which the leftists are present should not be confused with the “seizure of power”. Even because power is no longer considered as a loci to be conquered. The power before. it must be understood as a relationship of forces, a permanent field of dispute. But, in many cases, the political forces were satisfied with taking our “Winter Palaces”… tropical.

The factual powers, international and local, remained and remain active, especially when they bear in mind the losses they are suffering and may suffer.

In the last 15 years, South America has undergone important transformations. Despite remaining a region of profound social inequalities, almost all of its governments were able to implement economic policies that reduced, at different levels, poverty and fostered an unprecedented process of inclusion.

It is relevant that all these changes were made within the framework of democracy. The national drivers of social transformations came to their governments through elections internationally considered to be transparent, free and with broad popular participation.

If it is true that each of these national experiences has its historical specificity, it is no less true that some common traits unify them, which explains the advances that have occurred in the process of continental integration in the last decade.

Today, more than 10 years after the transformations unleashed in Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay and Ecuador, to name the most exemplary cases, these experiences seem to have reached a certain limit.

Most explanations for this new situation focus on the analysis of economic factors, especially international ones, such as the impact on the region of the end of the commodity super cycle, which had been important for the competitive insertion of South America in the world. Although the explanation is relevant, one cannot forget that the level of dependence of the region's economies vis-à-vis the global economy, even suffering the effects of the crisis, is quite different. It is enough to remember that in countries such as Brazil – today heavily hit by the crisis – the determining factor in the growth cycle of the first decade of the century was the domestic market.

Thus, by hypertrophying these exogenous determinations, internal economic factors are minimized, with which the projects responsible for the transformations that occurred in the first years were faced with.

The democratization of the region occurred unevenly, but steadily. In many countries, especially in the Andean area, the presence of new social and political actors in the public space – native peoples, in particular – collided with the narrowness of existing institutions, forcing institutional refoundations. Not by chance, countries like Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia went through constituent processes to account for new social and political dynamics. It is important to point out that these three countries, which had experienced continuous institutional crises, managed to stabilize their governments.

Even in other nations – above all in the Southern Cone – where the transition from dictatorships to democracy took place without major disruptions, there has recently been an emergence of movements to challenge governments. Diffuse contestation, as it does not engender clear opposition alternatives, except for conservative demonstrations, extremely minority, which previously had no public expression.

The crisis of the left's traditional paradigms does not mean that democratic invention should be an erratic, directionless process, steeped in the mists of history.

Most of the ongoing democratic processes in South America lack a narrative, including what happens in Brazil. The importance of these processes cannot be assessed only by the economic, social and political transformations that they were and are capable of producing, and they were not few or irrelevant. But they should also – and perhaps mainly – be measured by the continued strength of their example, by their ability to mobilize large social contingents and occupy the imagination of generations and finally transform themselves into a critical reference but, at the same time, into a new intellectual and action paradigm.

In what has been happening in South America in the last decade, where there are clear indications of an ongoing process of democratic revolution, there is a risk of covering these transformations with a content that is not its own and even opposite. Remember Marx's words in The 18th Brumaire: “It is precisely when they seem committed to revolutionizing themselves and things, to creating something that never existed, [...] men anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their aid, borrowing their names, their war cries and draperies, in order to present the new world-historical scene in this traditional guise and in this borrowed language”.

A discourse based on past and failed revolutionary experiences will not be able to fill the void left by the absence of an original narrative about the ongoing process of democratic invention. One of the contributions that Lefort left us was to associate the fate of socialism with the perspectives of the democratic revolution. That is why he opens his reflection on the Soviet experience – in the The Complication – with the seemingly paradoxical phrase: “Communism belongs to the past; on the other hand, the question of communism remains at the heart of our time”.

It is well known that the Latin American lefts in the past had ideas but not votes and that today they have votes but lack ideas.

Social inclusion processes, the size of which South America has witnessed in the last decade, cannot produce just tens of millions of producers and consumers subject, however, to a social regression if the process is interrupted and even reversed.

Having overcome the conjunctural difficulties that various democratic experiences in South America have been through – and they are not small – it is up to the left to build the narrative of the transformations carried out, as a condition for the possibility of defining the general lines of new paradigms for a truly democratic transformation of our society. America.

* Marco Aurelio Garcia (1941-2017) he was a professor at the Department of History at Unicamp and special advisor to the Presidency of the Republic for international affairs during the Lula and Dilma governments. Author, among other books, of Building tomorrow: reflections on the left (1983-2017) (Perseu Abramo Foundation).

This text was the script used by Marco Aurélio Garcia in his participation in the International Colloquium “Claude Lefort: the democratic invention today”, at the University of São Paulo, on October 14, 2015.

Originally published in the magazine Theory and debate.


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