In search of a lost feudal Brazil

Image: Gu Bra


The car thesisBrazil's feudal ather was born from the forced superstructural overlapping of characteristics of European feudalism to the Luso-Brazilian colonial world

Em “The colonization of the Americas under debate”, posted on the website the earth is round, I criticized the attempt to recover the proposal of a capitalist American colonization since practically the “Discovery”, an interpretation that still has some consensus. In summary form, I also questioned the defense of the transposition of European feudalism to the Americas, in general, and to Brazil, in particular, traditionally opposed to “capitalist colonization”, currently in strong scientific discredit. This important debate about modes of production in the past was practically abandoned with the victory of the liberal tide at the end of the 1980s, signaled by the destruction of the USSR and the so-called socialist area. [MAESTRI, 2023.]

Em “Brazilian historical formation in debate”, also posted in the earth is round, José Ricardo Figueiredo challenged my criticism, which he proposed as “revisionist”, defending the thesis of Brazil’s feudal past, with feudal remnants in the decades after 1888-1889, according to him from the point of view of “orthodox Marxism”, which proposed to represent. The author, a retired professor from the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering at Unicamp, is, at the very least, very close to PCdoB, having been a member of the board of directors of the Maurício Gabrois Foundation in São Paulo, in 2013. [GABROIS, 2013.] Which helps to understand this late defense.

Figueiredo defends, although often obliquely, the entire “orthodox” package that accompanied, in the past, that formulation, when it was presented as an orthodox Marxist interpretation: the “revolution in stages”, with the participation of “developmentalist sectors of the bourgeoisie” , in the fight against latifundia and imperialism. Collaborationist program explained as due, according to him, to a proposed weakness of “popular organizations” in Brazil, a country with “low industrial development and with coronelist domination of the peasantry”, before 1964.

It thus suggests the rightness of defending agrarian reform, “for national development”, associated with the anti-imperialist struggle, without the struggle for socialism. In other words, within the framework of the bourgeois and capitalist order. Program then defended, without major variations, by the PCB and PCdoB, which led to the disaster of 1964. Defeat, without resistance, of historical consequences for the revolution in Brazil and worldwide, at a time when the world of work experienced an upward movement started in the 1950s. A historic failure that we still pay for today. [MAESTRI, 2019.]

Pragmatic collage

The thesis of Brazil's feudal character was born from the forced superstructural superimposition of characteristics of European feudalism on the Portuguese-Brazilian colonial world, thus accommodating it in a historiographical Procrustes bed, due to political-ideological demands. [LACLAU, 1973; LAPA, 1981.] status academic and scientific “Marxist” that this reading enjoyed for decades was due to the endorsement it received from Stalinist dogmatism, hegemonic in the world communist and workers movement, until the beginning of the 1960s. The feudal characterization served as a substrate for the international collaborationist policies of the bureaucracy Moscow Stalinist, since its consolidation in the USSR. [BROUÉ, 1964.]

When constructing their materialist-historical interpretation of the becoming of humanity, Marx and Engels revealed the succession of modes of production, strongly driven by class oppositions. The founders of Marxism focused their investigations on the historical evolution of Western Europe, which had reached the highest civilizational stage, capitalist society, through the succession of “primitive communist”, “slave”, “feudal” and “capitalist” modes of production. The latter, the basis for the struggle to overcome it towards a “socialist” and, subsequently, “communist” mode of production. This reading already supported the communist manifesto of 1848. [MARX & ENGElS, 1848.] Those modes of production were defined, as much as possible, as fundamental, and not as universal.

Karl Marx never universalized the evolutionary line of Western Europe, as he explicitly recorded in his letters to the “director of the Otiechestviennie Zapiski, in 1877, and to Vera Zassulich, in 1881. In them, he “categorically” declared “not to attribute a universal character to the line of evolution of Western Europe” that he had proposed. [GORENDER, 2016: 65.] Marx also referred to an “Asian mode of production”, unknown to Europe, of social formations in which the dominant classes extracted surplus products from direct producers without owning the means of production. [CERM, 1974; SOFRI, 1978.] A theme that he did not develop because he was outside his area of ​​concern – the genesis of capitalism and its overcoming.

Vladimir Lenin embraced the abusive generalization of the line of development of Western Europe, with some reticence, in his conference, “About the State”, in 1919, at Sverdlov University, published for the first time in 1929, after his death, when the consolidation of bureaucracy in the USSR. Unless I am mistaken, Vladimir Lenin did not re-present or develop this interpretation.

At the conference, he proposed: “The development of all human societies over thousands of years, in all countries, without exception, reveals to us a general subjection to laws, a regularity and consequence; so that we have, first, a classless society […]; then, a society […] slave.” [we highlight] “This form was followed in history by another: feudalism.” “The history of humanity knows dozens and hundreds of countries that have gone through or are currently going through slavery, feudalism and capitalism.” [LENIN, Germinal, 2019.]

Dogmatic Marxism

This vision about the necessary universal succession of modes of production was consolidated, with pragmatic collaborationist objectives, foreign to Lenin, by Joseph Stalin. In About Dial MaterialisméEthics and Historical Materialismórico, of 1938, he stated: “History knows five fundamental types of relations of production [sic]: primitive communism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism and socialism.” And he concluded: Such is the picture that the development of relations of production between men [is] presented in the course of the history of humanity.” [STALIN, 1938.] He confused “modes of production” and fundamental “relations of production”.

The abusive universalization of the Western European evolutionary line proposed by Marx and Engels allowed its collaborationist instrumentalization. It was defined that all countries with late capitalism, semi-colonial and colonial, which would have institutions of the “feudal type” should impose a mature capitalist order, before advancing the struggle for socialism. And the consolidation of capitalism would take place in alliance and even under the direction of bourgeoisies defined as progressive, developmental, etc., allegedly interested in advancing the maturation of the bourgeois order, in alliance with the workers. Brazil would find itself in this case. [PRESTES, 2015.] This vision was opposed by the defense of carrying out bourgeois-democratic tasks in association with socialist ones, as occurred in 1917 – “permanent revolution”.

The abandonment of the fight for the world socialist revolution, the main banner of the Third International, at the time of its foundation and during its first years, was due to the imposition of the proposal for the isolated construction of socialism in the USSR. The disarticulation of the world socialist revolution would make it easier for the Soviet bureaucracy, interested in consolidating and enjoying its privileges, to establish non-conflictive and collaborative relations with bourgeois and oligarchic governments, etc. Even when the Third International radicalized its policies, they always included an alliance with the progressive bourgeois classes, as in 1935, when the National Liberation Alliance was formed. [FRANK, 1979; PRESTES, 2015.]

A Brazil with nobles and servants

 The author of “Brazilian historical formation in debate” describes and defends the proposal for superstructural transposition of Western European feudalism to colonial Brazil: “In fact, the captaincies formally reproduced the emphyteutic amphitheater characteristic of European feudal territorial property, in which Land ownership was tripartite between the king, the noble and the peasant.” In Brazil, according to him, the grantees received, especially “in return for military feats”, large fiefdoms, owing “economic and political commitments” to the king. And then, they would distribute land grants to whoever had the resources to explore them, financing the improvements and, above all, acquiring and exploiting “slaves”.

In his article, José Ricardo Figueiredo agrees with me in criticizing the proposal for capitalist colonization since the origins of colonial times. This is because the colonizers' intention to obtain profit and commercial capital were not characteristics of capitalism, but a common reality in Antiquity. And, we would move towards the Marxist method of interpretation, it is not important what is done, but how it is done – that is, the development of material forces and social relations of production, which are circumscribed in singular modes of production. And that's when the pig starts to twist its tail at our critic, since he accepts -or is not surprised- that the feudalism he defends exploited enslaved workers. This is because, as I said, the “peasant” was, for centuries, especially in colonial times, a marginal category in Brazil, dominated by colonial slave production.

In his defense of the traditional construction of an imaginary feudalism for Brazil, José Ricardo Figueiredo denies the allodial character of the sesmeira property proposed by me. He states that its concession required the necessary permission from the king and grantees for it to be sold, donated, bequeathed, inherited, etc. And that the new owners would owe the obligations to the king and the captain-general to which the original sesmeiros were obliged. No documentation is presented to support this claim which contradicts historical facts.

In 1534, the Royal Charter of the donation of the Captaincy of Espírito Santo determined, as usual, that the grantees divide the captaincy's lands into sesmarias, to “any person of any quality”, “freely without jurisdiction, nor any right”, with the exception “God’s tithe”. And the grantees could acquire distributed sesmaria only “by title of true purchase”, after colonization by the sesmeiros for eight years. [DOCUMENTOS, 1937.] Gorender recalls that the “ecclesiastical tithe in Brazil lost its nature as a feudal tribute and became a merely fiscal imposition”. [GORENDER, 2016: 410.]

The sesmeiro regime

The documentation is clear in this sense. Donations of sesmarias, without jurisdiction, were the general form of occupation of the Portuguese-Brazilian colonies, maintained until Independence. The donees were invested with various administrative, judicial powers, etc., receiving the due benefits. The Crown had a monopoly on the Brazilwood and slave trade; the fifth over all precious minerals; the ecclesiastical tithe, due to the papal granting of the Patronage of the Order of Christ to the kings of Portugal, in 1851. [HCPB, 3, p. 167 et passim.] The archives of the Colony and the Empire store tens of thousands of acts of purchase, sale, sharing, rental, etc. of land, with no restrictions beyond the usual commercial determinations, with practically no difference in sales between urban and rural land.

Sesmarias, which had always been negotiable, had no meaning in terms of money, work or products. They were, therefore, contrary to what happened in the Iberian Peninsula, free of senses and… devoid of servants. It was not, therefore, a question of liberality from the Crown, since the sesmeiros had to, in order to make their donations profitable, pay for the purchase of enslaved workers, who did not have any rights over the land, nor did they enjoy the relative autonomy of serfs. They were enslaved workers in the strict sense of the term, who paid tribute to the royal coffers when introduced into the colonies. Nothing, absolutely nothing, suggests a feudal order, when understanding the ancient social formation of Brazil in its essential determinations based on the available documentation.

It also records the non-feudal character of Brazil's ancient colonial and imperial formation, not having its productive organization, colonial slavery, never making use of the important productive paraphernalia that supported the overcoming of late Roman slavery and the development of feudal agriculture. Theme studied in detail by Marc Bloch, killed precisely eighty years ago by Nazi-fascism, in compendiums such as Work and technique in the Middle Ages [BLOCH, 1984, 1968; MICHAUX, 1970.]. Not even the rustic plows of late Roman slavery could withstand the mistreatment of the colonial enslaved worker.

In feudalism, servants took great care of the basic instruments of work, as they were their property. In Brazil, the great tool of colonial slavery, owned by the enslaver, was the hoe, rustic, heavy and resistant, which suffered in the hands of the captive, not just because it was a symbol of their merciless exploitation. And colonial slavery also ignored the vegetative reproduction of the servile population, a differential advantage of feudal relations in relation to late Roman slavery. In the feudal world, the son of a serf, at least until adulthood, worked in part for his progenitor. [DOCKÉS, 1979; BLOCH, 1968.] In colonial slavery, the child of the enslaved person was the property of the enslaver, as was all of his production, with the reproduction of the slave population guaranteed by transatlantic trafficking, until 1850, and by inter-provincial trafficking, until the early 1880s. [CONRAD, 1975, 1985.]

Slavery modes of production

José Ricardo Figueiredo proposes that, for Jacob Gorender, “ancient slavery would be mainly patriarchal, that is, intended for the service of the family […], while modern slavery would be mainly mercantile, destined for the market”. And he adds that the Bahian Marxist, recognizing the “existence of patriarchal slavery in modern times, and of mercantile slavery in antiquity”, both in subordinate form, from “quantitative difference deduces [arbitrarily] a qualitative difference: a new mode of production!” For the defender of a feudal Brazilian past, there would be no difference between Roman and colonial slavery, the latter being a revival of the former, a thousand years after the crisis as the dominant form of production.

Jacob Gorender carried out much of his monumental research in hiding, in prison and, always in freedom, under precarious conditions of intellectual work. He never enjoyed academic benefits. He was forced to make an enormous effort to keep his extensive empirical and theoretical knowledge of the social sciences up to date. Due to lack of time and conditions, he never undertook a detailed study of slavery in the Lower Roman Empire, having belatedly become familiar with Italian historiography on classical slavery and the translations into Italian of magnificent works by Soviet historians. [MOLOWIST, 1991; KUZISCIN, 1984; SCHTAIERMAN, & TROFIMOVA, 1975.]

in the colonial slavery, Jacob Gorender refers, and passant, to EM Schtaierman's proposal of the existence of “slavery with expanded mercantile relations”, distinct from the patriarchal nature of early Rome. Regarding the issue, he proposed in a non-peremptory way: “I think that, in both cases, it was patriarchal slavery, albeit at different degrees of development. The influence of mercantile relations, even at the height of its ramifications, never became decisive, to the point of eliminating the prevalence of the natural economy […].” [GORENDER, 2016.] The last statement contradicts historical reality.

In my article “The colonization of the Americas in debate”, I synthetically presented the differences in quality between Greco-Roman patriarchal slavery, where the subsistence economy dominated, with an atrophied mercantile sphere, and Roman slavery which I defined as “petty-mercantile ", from the rustic villa, a hegemonic productive nucleus in the two centuries before and after our time, focused on the then market, with a subsidiary subsistence sphere. [MAESTRI, 1986; CARANDINI, 1979; CATONE, 2015, COLUMELLA, 1977.] The great difference between Roman petty-mercantile slavery and American colonial slavery was due to the extrapolation of the latter's mercantile orientation, with all the resulting consequences, in the context of the first expansion of the “world market”.

Roman failure of great commercial slavery

Despite stumbling upon the universalization of the dominance of the patriarchal slave mode of production in Antiquity, what the Bahian communist defended and described was precisely the quantitative overcoming of so-called classic slavery by colonialism, which, knowing a leap in quality, in Modern Times, gave rise to a historically new mode of production, despite the general identities between forms of slave production. In truth, petty-mercantile slavery, of rustic villa, for centuries the dominant form of production, proved historically incapable of transforming, in the late Roman Empire, into great mercantile slavery. A leap in quality that was tried and failed, especially in Sicilian wheat production. [CICCOTTI,1977.]

Contrary to what José Ricardo Figueiredo suggests, Jacob Gorender has always argued that in the ancient social formation of Brazil, colonial slavery existed as the dominant mode of production, while other subordinate modes and forms of production also existed, including a very restricted peasant production. Colonial-peasant production that experienced dynamic nuclei especially in the south of Brazil, with the arrival of landless German and Italian-speaking peasants especially from the 1820s onwards. [WIEDERSPAHN, 1979; ROCHE, 1969; MAESTRI, 2000.]

Before the Abolition of slavery and the dissolution of the colonial slave mode of production, practically dominant from 1530 to 1888, diverse servile relations existed in Brazil, alongside slavery and full servitude. Multiple forms of servitude that assumed greater importance with the crisis and dissolution of colonial slavery, as in the case of the so-called “foster children”. [DALLA VECCHIA, 2001.] They were based on economic, ideological, physical cohesion, etc., without being legacies or remnants of non-existent feudalism. Karl Marx recalled that: “[…] remarkably similar events, which, however, occur in different historical environments, lead to totally different results.” [apud GORENDER, 2016: 65.]

The adjective of the new slave mode of production was not born from the colonial character of pre-1808 Brazil, but due to its genesis it presupposes the birth and development of the international market, which the colonial designation circumscribes its economic and not political character. In fact, slavery in Brazil reached real momentum after Independence, when the Brazilian Empire assumed semi-colonial status. And the essential description of the colonial slave mode of production, in J. Gorender's treatise, occurred at the level of its development of material productive forces and social relations of production, seen as the determining elements of legal, political, institutional, ideological, etc. arising.

Pastoral slavery

What forms of semi-servile production relations such as cambão, sharecropping, partnership, etc. “they would be slaves for Jacob Gorender” is an entirely new proposition. We are, therefore, waiting for Figueiredo to cite where and when the Bahian Marxist made such a wild statement. In this case, as in general, Figueiredo does not present the references for what he proposes, which would be rigorous and would enrich the discussion. In fact, the author lacks greater intimacy with the historical literature on slavery, about which he speaks peremptorily. A reality registered in its approximate approach to patriarchal and mercantile Greco-Roman slavery, which is in a certain way understandable and excusable.

More problematic for our discussion is his lack of knowledge about a historiography about colonial slavery that is already more than decades old, which a careful reading of the colonial slavery could mitigate. Reality materialized in his statement that, in the “South, labor relations in pastoralism were not slavery; slavery was only introduced in the production of beef jerky for commerce.” Rio Grande do Sul was one of the main captaincies and, above all, slave provinces, which was mainly due to pastoral production supported in a dominant way by slavery, through the exploitation of the “campeiro captive”.

Regarding the dominant pastoral slavery of Rio Grande do Sul, in addition to a voluminous edited primary documentation, we have a significant amount of thorough scientific studies on the issue, such as, among many others, those by Beatriz Eifert, Eduardo Palermo, Euzébio Assumpção, Helen Osório, Luiz Farinati, Paulo Xavier, Paulo Zarth, Setembrino dal Bosco. And the phenomenon of slavery in pastoralism is not restricted to the Far South, extending to Santa Catarina and Paraná, as recorded in studies by, among others, Fabiano Teixeira dos Santos and José Lúcio da Silva Machado. I coordinated research funded by CNPq on slave production in pastoralism, centered in Rio Grande do Sul, Piauí and Mato Grosso, published in three volumes. [MAESTRI, LIMA, BRAZIL, 2008-2010.]

José Ricardo Figueiredo frowns at the proposal for a multiplicity of modes of production known to humanity, in addition to those directly mentioned by Karl Marx. And, along these lines, it challenges my reference to the domestic, tributary, lineage mode of production, as examples of this variety. I referred to these three because they are the ones I am most familiar with when studying the history and historiography of pre-colonial black Africa. We definitely cannot approximate African village domestic production, supported by horticulture and agriculture using iron tools, to the primitive communism of Marx and Engels, an elaboration dependent on the limited empirical material they had in the mid-1988th century. [MAESTRI, XNUMX.]

Field of studies to be explored

I differentiated the proposal for a domestic mode of production from that of lineage, due to the emphasis of some Africanists on the proposal to define production relations based on classificatory ties of kinship, a view that I do not follow, but which raises important questions. [VANSINA, 1980.] It is also impossible to bring together the imposing Kingdom of Ghana, Empire of Mali, Empire of Songhai, etc. to village federations – chiefdoms –o, based on domestic production. [LOVEJOY, 1983; MEILLASSOUX, 1975, 1977, 1995; MIERS & KOTPYTOTT, 1977; MILLER, 1995; MAESTRI, 1988.] Unless I am mistaken, we still do not have studies on the mode of production of the Tupi-Guarani communities, which until now have been the subject of mainly anthropological and archaeological studies. The simple definition as tax formations of pre-Columbian societies in South, Central and North Africa is an impoverishing simplification, which requires better detail. [MURRA, 1980; SORIANO, 1981.]

The same can be said about the different types of “divisions" and especially, "parcels”, which gave rise, in some cases, to substantially different social formations, as in the case of the Republic of Paraguay. [MAESTRI, 2015.] Not to mention that orders mitaya e anacona, also abusively defined as feudal organizations, experienced different production relations, under the cover of the same submission to the I order. Authors refer to a “gaucho”, “small colonial peasant”, “quilombola” “mode of production”, etc. Not to mention Asian formations, little known among us. Realities that were only beginning to be addressed during the crisis of Marxist studies, in the context of the historic victory of the counter-revolution highlighted. [CERM, 1974; SOFRI, 1978.]

There has never been, as the author proposes, a “literary abolition” of the thesis of Brazilian and American feudalism. There was, indeed, a growing awareness of the ideological character of these proposals, sustained for decades by a Marxism castrated by the Stalinist dictatorship, as seen, which entered into a structural crisis, with the dissolution of the USSR. A proposal that, in truth, also corresponded to the collaborationist impulses of petit bourgeois and bourgeois social factions and even segments of the working aristocracy and trade union bureaucracy, more inclined to accommodation than to social confrontation.

This reading of reality attracted and neutralized intellectuals of indisputable value, who produced fundamental works on our past, such as Octávio Brandão, Alberto Passos Guimarães, Rui Facó, Werneck Sodré, Édison Carneiro, and even Caio Prado Júnior, to name just the best known, preventing them from rising up as effective organic intellectuals of the oppressed classes in Brazil, by preaching, at the drop of a hat, social pacification.

Revolutionary characterization

Jacob Gorender and Ciro Flamarión did not invent colonial slavery, through an act of will or exhibitionism. They essentially described an objective social reality based on the meticulous study of available information and historiography, using the Marxist method in a creative and erudite way. The definition of the colonial slave character of the ancient Brazilian social formation established the possibility of developing, on solid foundations, the discussion of Brazil's past and present and placed the world of work -enslaved workers- at the heart of the dynamics of our social formation. Until then, in general, the past of colonial and imperial Brazil was excavated in search of the resistance of an almost non-existent peasantry, ignoring the day-to-day struggle of the overseer worker. That definition therefore substantially advanced the knowledge of our reality, blocked by the false disjunctive feudalism versus capitalism.

A path that José Ricardo Figueiredo refuses to take in his article. His vision of modes of production, ignoring objective historical, social and economic reality, takes on a scholastic bias, which he confuses with Marxist “orthodoxy”. He concludes his review by releasing his publication, in his words, built with a compilation of quotes from authors, chosen by him, who spoke about the Brazilian reality, commented in a more or less broad way. An approach to the historical past through sacred texts, certainly useful and interesting, as long as it is complemented by a systematic study of contemporary documentation and advances in historiography. Everything subjected to a careful application of the Marxist method, at least for those who claim historical materialism, like José Ricardo Figueiredo and me. I already ordered the work from my colleague, as I didn't know him.

In a conclusive note, José Ricardo Figueiredo proudly points out that in his article he did not mention Stalin, largely responsible for the mechanistic proposal of the five necessary stages and the “revolution in stages”, allied with the bourgeoisie, as we have seen. And he clarifies that he didn't do it to disqualify him. Quite the contrary, he proceeded in such a way to “show that the defense of the orthodox thesis about modes of production in Brazil against revisionism does not depend [sic] in any way on that Soviet leader.” He would say that the author did not need to apologize for not citing the “Father of the Peoples”, since he accompanied him, silent but always present, throughout the development of the article, endorsing it.

* Mario Maestri is a historian. Author, among other books, of Sons of Ham, sons of the dog. The enslaved worker in Brazilian historiography (FCM Editora).


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  • The society of dead historyclassroom similar to the one in usp history 16/06/2024 By ANTONIO SIMPLICIO DE ALMEIDA NETO: The subject of history was inserted into a generic area called Applied Human and Social Sciences and, finally, disappeared into the curricular drain
  • Strengthen PROIFESclassroom 54mf 15/06/2024 By GIL VICENTE REIS DE FIGUEIREDO: The attempt to cancel PROIFES and, at the same time, turn a blind eye to the errors of ANDES management is a disservice to the construction of a new representation scenario
  • Hélio Pellegrino, 100 years oldHelio Pellegrino 14/06/2024 By FERNANDA CANAVÊZ & FERNANDA PACHECO-FERREIRA: In the vast elaboration of the psychoanalyst and writer, there is still an aspect little explored: the class struggle in psychoanalysis
  • Letter to the presidentSquid 59mk,g 18/06/2024 By FRANCISCO ALVES, JOÃO DOS REIS SILVA JÚNIOR & VALDEMAR SGUISSARDI: “We completely agree with Your Excellency. when he states and reaffirms that 'Education is an investment, not an expense'”
  • Volodymyr Zelensky's trapstar wars 15/06/2024 By HUGO DIONÍSIO: Whether Zelensky gets his glass full – the US entry into the war – or his glass half full – Europe’s entry into the war – either solution is devastating for our lives
  • Introduction to “Capital” by Karl Marxred triangular culture 02/06/2024 By ELEUTÉRIO FS PRADO: Commentary on the book by Michael Heinrich
  • PEC-65: independence or patrimonialism in the Central Bank?Campos Neto Trojan Horse 17/06/2024 By PEDRO PAULO ZAHLUTH BASTOS: What Roberto Campos Neto proposes is the constitutional amendment of free lunch for the future elite of the Central Bank
  • The strike at federal Universities and Institutescorridor glazing 01/06/2024 By ROBERTO LEHER: The government disconnects from its effective social base by removing those who fought against Jair Bolsonaro from the political table