Florestan Fernandes – round trip

Image: Paulo Fávero


The political regime of the bourgeois autocracy and the “theories of authoritarianism”

It exists in the mature work of Florestan Fernandes, especially in The bourgeois revolution in Brazil, a strong rational association between dependent and underdeveloped Brazilian capitalist development and the configuration of autocratic political regimes. What took place in the periphery, contrary to the view advocated by the classical approach to the bourgeois-democratic revolution, “is a strong pragmatic dissociation between capitalist development and democracy (…) [and] a strong rational association between capitalist development and autocracy. Thus, what 'is good' for intensifying or accelerating capitalist development comes into conflict, in value orientations less than in the concrete behaviors of the possessing and bourgeois classes, with any democratic evolution of the social order” (Fernandes, 1987, p. 292 ).

The process of bourgeois revolution is, above all, an eminently political process, but with deep socio-anthropological roots. The “Bourgeois Revolution [in Brazil] does not constitute a historical episode”, that is, there was no event remarkable, in the sense of Nelson Werneck Sodré, for whom “a great event in the history of Brazil has not yet happened” (Feijó, 1999). It was undoubtedly a “structural phenomenon”, but “a social revolution, however diluted and weak it may be, does not take place without a complex psychocultural and political base” (Fernandes, 2005, p. 37-38).

The fundamental political category of the interpretation of contemporary Brazil (that is, of the transition to monopoly capitalism, from 1930 and especially after the war) provided by our author is called bourgeois autocracy and not, for example, conservative modernization or late capitalism , expressions more suited to social models and interpretations that are rigidly stratoslavic or economic (themes already mentioned). I conclude, with this, the very important question that the concept of bourgeois autocracy coagulates, after saturating the concept of empirical research of reality, in the systematic elaboration of a kind of social “phenomenology” of civil domination (for this reason, in the research on blacks in São Paulo, the observation of structural racism and the deception of “racial democracy” can be considered important archimedical points of autocratic practice), which fully exercise the domination-consensus binomial in an expanded bourgeois State, typical of current usage, and sometimes vulgarized, of the Gramscian concept of hegemony.

In Brazil, the establishment of a bourgeois autocracy regime goes beyond being just another Bonapartism tout court. Up to a plausible point, the idea of ​​a long Brazilian Bonapartism (which seems to be eternal) is mistaken, the autocratic regime is a plot that goes beyond suspending and tying the socio-political richness of the Brazilian class struggle in an alliance between the State apparatus and the providential historical character. For Florestan, bourgeois autocracy is an articulated and globalizing historical rationality, which becomes an organization from top to bottom, and in the opposite direction, from bottom to top, of the bourgeois pole, saturating all the grooves and social fringes of an operation permanent defensive (the constant recourse to counter-revolutionary preventive measures). The bourgeois autocracy, in this way, is always on guard with a readiness of preventive counterrevolution against the expressiveness of popular or Jacobin forces. Regarding the peculiarity of such a strange regime, Florestan (Fernandes, 1987, p. 365-366) did not find it credible – and he was right – a turn of Brazilian bourgeois autocracy under the military to its peak, that is, traditional fascism , mass organizer.

In the last paragraph of your magnum opus, this is how our author foresees the possibilities for the dictatorship to evolve: “in the historical context of class relations and conflicts that is emerging, both the autocratic State will be able to serve as a pawn for the advent of an authentic State capitalism, stricto sensu, how much the systematic damming of anti-bourgeois pressures and tensions could precipitate the revolutionary breakdown of order and the outbreak of socialism. In one case, as in the other, the autocratic-bourgeois model of capitalist transformation will be condemned to a relatively short duration” (Fernandes, 1987, p. 336).

In the perspective of 1974, it was already well established that the dictatorship slipped from any lurch towards a traditional fascism. Although the regime contained blatant elements of fascist violence, especially with regard to the choice to eliminate the “internal enemy”, the doctrine of national security and the organization of a permanent police apparatus, it was allergic to mass organization. However, the autocratic-bourgeois regime, at the crossroads of the Geisel government, even after carrying out the “capitalist transformation” (that is, the realization of the RBB), could seek institutionalization through the deepening and perpetuation of a new modality of state capitalism. At the same time, Caio Prado Jr. he saw the possibility of a “bureaucratic capitalism” prevailing, which came to “overcome in political influence another bourgeois sector that (…) I baptized the 'orthodox bourgeoisie'” (Prado Jr, 1987, p. 252). It is worth noting that, at the time, in addition to Florestan and Caio Prado Jr., in their own way, many liberal sectors also glimpsed this type of possibility for the dictatorship to evolve. If so many different people converged on a similar diagnosis – although the recommended therapies may be antagonistic – there was something true in the matter.

At today's prices, it is known that socialism was absent from the meeting. But what is the fate of the autocratic-bourgeois model of capitalist transformation? Was it short-lived? Was it overcome in the constituent? At the time, was the consolidation of the RBB, in the form of a state capitalism milder than the open dictatorship, an alternative with a feasible projection? In case it was an attempt by the Geiselist hard core, the paranoia of the Brazilian bourgeoisie soon put an end to the joke and sang in chess the checkmate of their class veto. Certainly the bourgeoisie certainly sanctioned the proposal of a controlled transition, but as long as it resulted in a liberal regime in institutions and political economy. He worked hard to remove from the scenario, as José Luís Fiori wrote, “Prussian dreams” (Fiori, 1995, p. 57).

The routing of the bourgeois veto operated in two ways: the visible erosion of the political-business base of the government and the stimulus to the criticism of liberal intellectual sectors, many of which were recent arrivals, coming from the political opposition located on the left. Here the protoforms of Brazilian neoliberalism can be located.

Examining the question of the bourgeois veto of the geiseist leadership project is one of the repeated enigmas of contemporary Brazilian history (in different factual circumstances, in this case of a liberal democratic legality regime, this veto was recently repeated in the coup impeachment of Dilma Rousseff). It allows us to situate our modality of regeneration of the autocratic-bourgeois model, undertaken by a dependent bourgeoisie, because this process became sufficiently translucent the lesson that did not cherish it – or at most cherished a residual part of the class - independenceist dreams and autonomist mirages. It is worth emphasizing that the moment was propitious, because here the economy was internally completing the circuit of the second industrial revolution, the planning capacity of the State and universities was admired internationally – a time when the Koreans and Chinese, the latter beginning to experience the process of the “four modernizations” (industry, agriculture, science and technology and security) and overcoming the period of the cultural revolution, they came on a mission to understand the insightful solutions of Brazilian planning and political economy. There, an experiment in capitalism (Korea) and state socialism (China) began, which found no social bases here.

In another key, the same bourgeois veto made it possible to shed light on the nature and dynamics of the Brazilian developmentalist-conservative State at the time: although it was the mainspring of the industrializing process, this State (even during the period in which the bourgeois autocracy was in force) was always tied to the limits imposed by its foundational pact, which maintained the agrarian power structure and the technological and financial protagonism of foreign capital. The Brazilian State certainly has the autochthonous bourgeoisie as its leader. It fell to him, due to the geopolitical conditions of the cold war and the international division of labor, to lead a development process, but without demiurgic voluntarism.

An astute tactician, FHC was very perceptive in the study he dedicated to entrepreneurial behavior, Industrial entrepreneur and economic development in Brazil(1972). He realized that businessmen are always on the lookout for the possibilities of a corporate occupation of the State (participation in councils, economic ministries, Central Bank, institutes, etc.). The occupation should not be confused, a priori, with adherence or full class commitment (in and for itself) to the political project of the current government (much less if the government, even moderate, is leftist). In conjunctures of economic growth, fractions of the bourgeoisie can even conditionally support a left-wing government. But it will soon introduce its veto, unequivocal or majority, if a cyclical crisis strikes, a sign of any slight inflection of state capitalism or socialism, or in the perfect storm of combining both. [I]

The impasse of the autocratic-bourgeois model of capitalist transformation, obviously, opened an evident period of crisis for the dictatorship. In crisis processes, the problem of changing or recomposing the power bloc gains fundamental importance. And, at the very core of these processes, the problem of disputed ideas, arising from organic intellectuals from different classes or even traditional intellectuals, assumes a decisive role.

Representing the end of the dictatorship, from the category of authoritarianism, became an illustrated common sense of the mainstream of Sociology and Political Science, until today, even to define Bolsonaro's neo-fascist government. On his wanderings through the United States, Canada and Europe, Florestan was scandalized by the beautifying tinctures of the Brazilian dictatorship, exhaled by institutionalist political science – “most North American, Canadian, European societies were very enchanted with the dictatorship, because it apparently it maintained democracy with elections, functioning parliament, etc., and was united with the 'most responsible' civilians in defending order and the expansion of capitalism in Brazil” (Fernandes, 1991, p. 11). Thus, the appeasing political-ideological background of the theory is perceived. According to this interpretation, roughly speaking, the dictatorship was not a dictatorship, but an “authoritarian regime” with deep “roots” in the homeland. such an interpretationin terms of the elaboration of the political strategy, it entailed fixing in advance the limits of going beyond the military period of the process that became known as democratic transition (1974-1988). It is permissible to conquer the liberal political regime, but without touching the archeologies of the bureaucratic, military, judiciary and media apparatus.

The reconstruction of post-dictatorship political power, informed by a liberal conception, could only be downgraded. Everything was reduced to the organized withdrawal of uniforms from civil bureaucracy apparatuses and the “bloodless” surrender of political-institutional power. With that, Brazil became – if a definition fits – a liberal democracy of a dependent country. With regard to the relaxation of the economic power of the State, the prospect of the heralds of the theory of authoritarianism advocated a State Reform whose desideratum was the transfer of economic activities and public services to the private sector. In this internal theoretical articulation of the theory of authoritarianism, the critique of the state bourgeoisie is an important ideological piece in carrying out the diagnosis and in the political questioning of action.

Florestan submitted the theory of authoritarianism to a visceral critique in his courses at PUC-SP in 1979. His class notes served to write the very important book Notes on the “theory of authoritarianism” (Fernandes, 1979). The origin of the concept of authoritarianism today comes from the formulations of the Spanish sociologist Juan Linz (1980) on the processes of “transition and consolidation of democracy”, especially in the countries of Latin America and southern Europe (Linz, 1980; Linz, 2015; Linz & Stepan, 1999). Florestan is as sharp as a goat knife. For him, “the concept of authoritarianism it is a logically ambiguous and plurivocal concept (Max Weber would call it 'amorphous'). At its worst it is a kind of logical perversion, as it is linked to the liberal attack on the State's 'abuses of power' and the neo-Kantian critique of the 'exorbitance of authority'”. Ahead, Florestan reveals the open secret of the concept of authoritarianism, which we call the reader's attention. Due to the importance of what will be said: “the aim is not to unmask the bourgeois State, but to denounce its most complete tyrannical version” (Fernandes, 1979, p. 3).

In 1975, FHC published the book Authoritarianism and Democratization (1975). Among other ideas, there is a critique of the state bourgeoisie, the standard bearer of the authoritarian virus, as well as an outline of an exit strategy from the dictatorship in crisis. He writes: “with the local bourgeoisie diminished of its accumulating force and the internationalized bourgeoisie harmed by the world crisis, the new apologetic response finds springs for the developmentalist impulse in State Enterprise and Autochthonous Technology”, thus the political problem posed was to lay bare “ the social forces underlying the style of development we now face and those that could provide alternatives to it. In this sense, and with the conceptual limitations that always occur when it comes to characterizing emerging processes, I had to reluctantly use variable and unclear adjectives: dependent-associated development; state bourgeoisie; authoritarian regime, substantive democratization, etc.” (Cardoso, 1974, p. 15).

The concept and the political interpellation did not serve the objectives of an autonomous popular opposition, which aimed to break imperialist dependence and achieve a substantive democracy: by criminalizing the state bourgeoisie for the ills of dictatorship of an autocratic-bourgeois type, the face of the international and Brazilian bourgeoisie as responsible for the perpetrated acts. For Cardoso, in a veritable cleanup of the crime scene, the model of bourgeois autocracy was of exclusive interest to the class fraction he called the state bourgeoisie.

Thus wrote FHC, decriminalizing the presence of the international bourgeoisie in the historical bloc of the dictatorship: “I think that regimes of this type [authoritarian], in dependent societies, find their raison d'etre less in the political interests of international corporations (which prefer forms of state control that are more permeable to their private interests) than in the social and political interests of the bureaucratic levels that control the state (civil and military) and that are increasingly organized in the sense of control the state sector of the productive apparatus. Some local business sectors are allied to this axis, but in a tailed way” (Cardoso, 1975, p. 40).

In frank opposition to the Geisel project, and within the same reasoning, writes the same author, “wouldn't this 'state bourgeoisie' be a social layer capable of encouraging hopes, now yes, of an expansionist statism? What real opportunities (due to the basic structural dependence of the economy) will such a group have to gain hegemony in the power bloc and, regardless of the form of reorganization of markets and political order that could interest the internationalized bourgeoisie, to impose a vision of State capable of leading to the expansion of spheres of political and economic influence? Could it be that the real social basis of the current authoritarianism rests on this 'state bourgeoisie' and on the axes of power (civil and military) that form alongside it? ” (Cardoso, 1975, p. 41).

Based on the digression against the possible possibility of a Prussian shift in the autocratic-bourgeois model, a broad front strategic proposal of all bourgeois sectors, the middle and popular classes, is launched, aiming at the isolation of the state bourgeoisie – which was only a mirage on the horizon, which did not even exist organically in fact -, based on the reorganization of the State on liberal bases. Which, by the way, ended up happening.

A curious aspect of the concept of state bourgeoisie is that, although central in the internal articulation of FHC's theoretical-political-strategic démarche, it is, as he himself recognizes, a loose concept. The lassitude of the concept is evident, for example, in the following passage from FHC's book: “(...) I try to demonstrate (although with the reservation that I do not have conclusive research) that a layer of managers of companies is forming that does not it is bureaucratic in the strict sense. That is, whose decision-making scopes go beyond the company's internal framework and whose policy (and this is decisive) may allow the emergence of group solidarity and stem from an ideology (state expansionism) that defines relatively autonomous objectives for this sector of class (...) I want to underline, consequently, that a class sector was formed in the set of 'bourgeois' interests – that is, capitalists – which began to dispute hegemony in the power bloc formed by the dominant classes” (Cardoso, 1979, p. 17-18).

In the case of the concept of state bourgeoisie, as Carlos Nelson Coutinho (1984) points out, its central problem with this concept resides in the lack of understanding it exudes about the transformations of the State in late capitalism, that is, about the coordinating role played by the State in processes of capital and labor force reproduction and in the distribution of profit margins to the different sectors of the economy, monopoly and non-monopoly. The author points out that the role of the State in the reproduction of capital in the era of State monopoly capitalism “should not be seen as a simple manifestation or result of a teleological project of the state bureaucracy or of certain fractions of the bourgeoisie (say: of a supposed 'state bourgeoisie'). It is a process objectively determined by the degree of maturity and by the specific contradictions of capitalist development in Brazil. This means that the decisive role of the State in the reproduction of global social capital will continue to take place in our country, regardless of the lamentations (more or less opportunistic) of some anachronistic or temporarily dissatisfied economic sectors” (Coutinho, 1984, p. 173-174 ).

A summary phrase by FHC became very famous, “Brazil is not an underdeveloped country, but an unjust one”. It was recalled in a famous article by Francisco Weffort (1994), published in Folha de S. Paul on the day of the Brazilian presidential election of 1994 (4/10/1994), which crowned FHC victorious. It is a false antagonism, but useful to sanction the validity of a liberal democracy under the hooded validity of a bourgeois autocracy and to obfuscate the foundations of injustice and inequality intrinsic to the Brazilian socio-economic formation.

At the time, Florestan was notable at the time for being a healthy dissonant voice of the happy choir. It is enough to reread his writings on the democratic transition, especially the processes of the New Republic and the Constituent Assembly, in which he took part. He never gave up making a systematic critique of Brazilian “misery” (in the terms that Marx glossed the German “miserable”, that is, limited) life.

Anyway, what democracy? Questioning the democratic question of the Brazilian transition (the angle from which the question of civil society/substantive democracy can be seen), Florestan wrote: “those who simplify the problem of democracy and illusory place it as a 'requirement of civil society' would be amazed if they could clearly see what kind of democracy the strategic sectors of the dominant classes, national and foreign, would like to establish through bourgeois supremacy (that is, through its capacity for class domination within civil society) and what is the relationship of this type of democracy with the existing dictatorship. Dictatorship ceased to be a priority for these sectors, but it did not lose the character of an inescapable necessity, at the same time economic, social and political. The ideal, for them, would be for it to maintain itself, renewing itself and growing, in order to generate a democracy of stable expanded participation, sterilized and controlled by the top of the ruling classes (that is, by their elites in power). Therefore, for these sectors, the best of all possible worlds passes through dictatorship, but according to a bourgeois logic of internationalized dependent capitalism: by destroying itself, dictatorship would give birth not to its reverse or its opposite, but to a political form in which bourgeois autocracy was institutionally compatible with political representation, the party regime and electoral routine. As in the past (…) there would be a permanent active dictatorial fixation, operating within and through the bourgeois State, by which the ruling elites would have sufficient resources to prevent the instability of order and political upheavals” (Fernandes, 1982, p. 99). ). With this quote I close the article with the intention of honoring a great intellectual and public man.

*Jaldes Meneses He is a professor at the Department of History and the Graduate Program in Social Work at UFPB.



CARDOSO, Fernando Henrique. Industrial entrepreneur and economic development in Brazil. Sao Paulo: Difel (2a ed.), 1972.   

__________________________. Authoritarianism and democratization. Rio de Janeiro: Peace and Land, 1975. 

COUTINHO, Carlos Nelson Democracy as a universal value and other essays. Rio de Janeiro: Salamander (2a ed.), 1984. 

____________________. Notes on the “theory of authoritarianism”. So Paulo: Hucitec, 1979.

____________________. The dictatorship in question. São Paulo: TA Queiroz, 1982.

____________________. The bourgeois revolution in Brazil. Sociological interpretation essay.Rio de Janeiro: Guanabara (3a ed.), 1987.

____________________. The bourgeois revolution in Brazil. Sociological interpretation essay. Sao Paulo: Globo (5a ed.), 2005.

FIORI, Jose Luis. In search of lost dissent. Essays on the celebrated crisis of the State. Rio de Janeiro: Insight, 1995. 

LINZ, Juan. Authoritarian regimes. In: PINHEIRO, Paulo Sérgio (Coord.). The authoritarian state and popular movements. Rio de Janeiro, Paz e Terra/Cedec, 1980, p. 119-213.

__________. Authoritarianism and Democracy. Lisbon: Horizonte Books, 2015

__________&STEPAN, Alfred. The Transition and Consolidation of Democracy. The experience of Southern Europe and South America. São Paulo: Paz e Terra, 1999.

PRADO Jr., Caio. The Brazilian Revolution. Perspectives in 1977. São Paulo: Brasiliense (7a ed.), 1987.

WEFFORT, Francis. The second democratic revolution. In: Folha de S Paulo, on 4/10/1994. Available in:https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/fsp/1994/10/04/caderno_especial/3.html>. Accessed on September 9, 2020. 


[I]Governments and regimes pass; the bourgeoisie remains. In the Lula and Dilma governments, for example, the presence of large businessmen from industry or agribusiness in the ministries, in fact, meant this corporate representation.



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