Current challenges of Brazilian political thought



Which analytical instruments allow better understanding of the historical present?

The history of Political Science in Brazil is an extremely short story. As is widely known, the discipline as we know it is a product of the 1964 coup. The relationship between political science and authoritarianism is, however, ambiguous, since it wants to explain it and is, at the same time, beneficiary of the graduate system produced by the Brazilian authoritarian modernization.

An example of concern about the coup is the statement that opens Wanderley Guilherme dos Santos's thesis, The calculus of conflict: impasse in Brazilian politics and the crisis of 1964, defended at Stanford University: “the military seizure of power in 1964 was a surprise for many, a shock for others and a relief for those who believed that President João Goulart had seriously committed his government to a radical populist adventure”. In this reference, the author of Who will carry out the coup in Brazil? invites “those who are dissatisfied with their previous assessments to rethink the politics of the period and to seek a deeper explanation for this decisive event” (SANTOS, 1979: V).[1]

Shortly before, Bolívar Lamounier, also in his doctoral thesis, Ideology and authoritarian regimes: theoretical perspectives and a study of the Brazilian case, defended at the University of California/Los Angeles, had argued, in a similar vein, that the coup had shown that “our theoretical references provide little guidance in concrete situations” (LAMOUNIER, 1974: 13).[2]

On the other hand and in a complementary way, Brazilian authoritarianism was also modernizing, promoting the establishment of a postgraduate system, whose landmark is the University Reform of 1968. Thus, the first master's degrees in political science were created at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), in 1965, and at the Instituto Universitário de Pesquisas do Rio de Janeiro (IUPERJ), in 1969, an experience of the discipline that, to a large extent, contrasts with the previous one, as it was, for example, in the chair of Politics from USP. At the same time, the assertion of political science as a discipline benefits from aggressive action by the Ford Foundation which, since the Cuban Revolution, has been involved in a dispute for cultural hegemony in Latin America, promoting the arrival of North American professors and granting scholarships to students Brazilians to carry out postgraduate studies in the USA.

It is true that the concern with authoritarianism is present in the set of social sciences produced in Brazil after 1964. Not by chance, as Luiz Werneck Vianna (1997) indicated, the social sciences of the period focused primarily on interpreting what was characterized as Brazilian conservative modernization, as can be seen in The Brazilian economy: critique of dualist reason (1972), by Francisco de Oliveira; São Paulo and the National State (1973), by Simon Schwartzman; Politique et dévéloppement économique: strutcturs de pouvoir et systéme de décision au Brésil (1973), by Luciano Martins; The bourgeois revolution in Brazil (1975), by Florestan Fernandes; Elite and state-building in imperial Brazil (1975), by José Murilo de Carvalho; Authoritarian capitalism and peasantry (1976), by Otávio Velho; Liberalism and union in Brazil (1976), by Werneck Vianna himself; The agrarian roots of modernization in Brazi: 1880 – 1930 (1979), by Elisa Reis.

However, the challenge was especially relevant for political science, even because traditionally its privileged object is the State. Perhaps even more important, the coup ends up representing an opportunity to assert the autonomy of politics in relation to other spheres, such as the social and economic spheres. In affirming the specificity of politics and, along with it, of political science, practitioners of the discipline turn especially against sociology and Marxism, which had a prominent position in Brazilian social sciences before the coup.

In contrasting terms with the until then dominant orientation, they value empirical research over conceptual concerns. In this orientation, it is possible both to highlight the weight of political processes as independent variables for the breakdown of democracy, as Santos (1979) does, and to indicate that political challenges could hinder the consolidation of the authoritarian arrangement, as Lamounier (1974) does. In broader terms, after 1964 the State assumes an even greater importance in the development of the country, which stimulates the study of the processes associated with it.

In a certain contrast to the “aggionarmento” agenda, both Santos (1978) and Lamounier (1982), when thinking about Brazilian political science, value the former essayistic tradition as a proper and distinctive element of the discipline in the country. The thought produced in Brazil on political issues before the institutionalization of the discipline would even function, according to Lamounier (1982), as a kind of “stock” of themes and problems available to later political scientists. In this reference, political thought would be constitutive of political science itself as understood in Brazil.

On the other hand, despite the notable growth in recent years of what has become a sub-area, it is questionable whether the community of Brazilian political scientists as a whole shares the belief in the importance of political thinking. Even so, sometimes unconsciously, the “stock” provided by this tradition continues to be used. A curious situation is thus created; in which political thought is a constitutive but neglected part of Brazilian political science.

Returning to the brief historical reconstitution, it is possible to point out that if Brazilian political science was primarily concerned, in the 1960s and 1970s, with authoritarianism, the discipline began to deal, in the 1980s and 1990s, above all with the transition, consolidation and quality of democracy . As in the first situation, the theoretical orientation is still related to broader political developments, in particular, the progressive withdrawal of the military from power. At the same time, interest in the State is giving way to civil society, a category that, during the transition, takes on a very specific meaning.

Particularly influential in the period is the literature that came to be known as “transitology”. In defense of democracy, these works clearly assume a normative position. At the same time, they are quite pessimistic about the functioning of the “new” democracies. Guillermo O'Donnell – an important Argentine political scientist who lived in Brazil for several years – considered, for example, that these democracies would not be consolidated or institutionalized, even if they became lasting. In this reference, he even defended that the best characterization for them would not be representative democracies, but “delegative democracies”, in which whoever “wins a presidential election is authorized to govern the country as he sees fit” (O´Donnell 1991: 30).

In the opposite direction, since the mid-1990s, Brazilian political science has started to deal no longer with the consolidation of democracy, but with how our democracy would work. The deepest reason for assuming such a perspective would be the belief that Brazil would be a stable democracy, which could be verified using the most different criteria. Along with the change in evaluation of the performance of democracy in Brazil, there is also a certain analytical shift: from a more global approach, concerned with broader issues, such as the State and political regimes, to more specific approaches, which deal with with Legislative Studies, Public Policies, Democratic Controls and even with Political Thought.

In recent years, or rather since at least the 2016 parliamentary coup, recent certainties have been, or at least should have been, shaken. First of all, the assumption that Brazil would be a consolidated democracy no longer holds. The subsequent election of an extreme right-wing president who daily challenges the foundations of our democracy without any major reaction to his actions shows how urgent it is to rethink Brazilian political science.

To this end, Brazilian political thought can play an important role, not least because, unlike much of the discipline in the country, it never had a naturalized view of what Brazilian democracy is. This may even occur, in part, due to its origin being, in a certain way, prior to the institutionalization of the social sciences. Furthermore, the fact that his material is basically history makes him distrust the certainties of the time, I hope, whatever that is. These conditions also make it easier for him to move more freely between the different areas of political science and social sciences in general. In short, you have a greater predisposition for a critical perspective that transcends the conditions of one moment or another.

In a suggestive way, if the reaction to the 1964 coup d'état was one of surprise and disquiet, such feelings reappear today. The young social scientists of an already apparently distant past realized that they did not have analytical instruments to understand the situation that the country was experiencing after the military coup. Brazilian social sciences, and more specifically, political science, as we know it, are, to a large extent, the result of the search for answers to this apprehension. Even if the current political crisis is very different from 1964, not least because we live in a context after the Cold War, in which the corrosion of democracy occurs from within it, we also do not have the conceptual tools to understand what is happening in these days in Brazil. Even because, from one moment to another, a good part of the beliefs that were formed in the last decades about Brazilian democracy, for which the contribution of political science was not negligible, were undone.

In short, a challenge is posed today, the answer to which will determine the very relevance of Brazilian political science. To face it, Political Thought can play an important role.[3]

*Bernardo Ricupero He is a professor in the Department of Political Science at USP. Author, among other books, of Romanticism and the idea of ​​nation in Brazil (WMF Martins Fontes).


LAMOUNIER, B. 1974. Ideology and authoritarian regimes: theoretical perspectives and a study of the Brazilian case. PhD Thesis. University of California/Los Angeles, 1974.

O'DONNELL, G. 1991. “Delegative Democracy?” New CEPRAP Studies. n. 31, pp. 25-40.

SANTOS, WG 1979. The calculus of conflict: impasse in Brazilian politics and the crisis of 1964, PhD Thesis, Stanford.

VIANNA, LW 1997. The passive revolution in Brazil: Iberism and Americanism in Brazil. Rio de Janeiro: Revan.


[1] Santos seeks to demonstrate that the crisis that produced 1964 would be a crisis of decision-making paralysis, generated in the context of a party system characterized by what the Italian political scientist Giovanni Sartori called polarized pluralism.

[2] Lamounier, argues that an authoritarian ideology, created in the 1920s and 1930s, would work as a true political technology for the upper strata of the military and civil bureaucracy, preparing 1964.

[3] Text based on a presentation at the IV Journeys of Political Thought



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