Notes on the Subaltern Bourgeoisie in Latin America

George Grosz, The Eclipse of the Sun, 1926.


The Latin American bourgeoisie is surrender, anti-national and even fascist, when it feels its power threatened

To face the misery and social inequality that persist as central characteristics of Latin American nations in general, it is necessary to understand their historical roots. To this end, in this essay we highlight the role and character of the Latin American bourgeoisies, analyzing the main reasons why this ruling class historically stands against national processes for greater autonomy and overcoming the poverty of the peoples of this region located on the systemic periphery of capitalism .

Discussions on the so-called “national question” began more than a hundred years ago, but they continue to be fundamental for the interpretation of the historical particularities of our america (in terms of José Martí). They must, therefore, guide the tactics and strategy of struggles to overcome exploitation and submission to external interests, a condition to which we are still hostages today. In this new century, with the deepening of the structural crisis of capitalism, this scenario is getting worse – which can be observed in a series of “modern” coups d'état and social setbacks.


About the national question

The first decades of the last century saw important advances in class struggle, working class organization and theoretical production – both worldwide and particularly in America. In the Latin American context, around the 1920s, the impact of the Russian Revolution became clear: several communist parties were created throughout the nations of the continent. As a result of this organizational impulse, the newly created Third International (the Communist International) began to consider American nations more carefully, fostering debates on the national question in Wow America. Under the dialogic influence of the new International, at the beginning of the interwar period still democratically led by Lenin, critical contributions began to be systematized for an interpretation of the historical and social reality of our nations.

The analyzes produced in the period questioned positivist and Eurocentric dogmas, which dominated the theses of the Second International (the Socialist International, with a parliamentary and pacifist orientation). However, despite these analytical advances, the limited socialist perspectives of the Second International, stiffened by the influence of the evolutionary positivism of the XNUMXth century, would soon return to detain the hegemony of the international communist movement, when Stalin's rise to power – with political bureaucratization and the mechanistic materialism that would cloud the freedom of critical dialectical thinking.

Despite this regression, great American thinkers maintained a coherent defense of an effectively dialectical analysis of the reality of their nascent nations, opposing the conceptions artificially transplanted from Europe to America. In this sense, we seek here to promote a reflection on the national question in Latin America, analyzing problems and fundamental traits common to most American peoples, in particular: the socio-historical thesis of social evolutionism (stepism, or social evolution by stages); and its consequent practical political derivation, allianceism (the submissive alliance that should be made by workers with allegedly “nationalist” portions of the bourgeoisie, according to the idea of ​​a supposed first “bourgeois-democratic” moment of the revolution, which would be prior to the properly socialist stage).

Among the analyzes produced in this period, the most relevant themes for thinking about the national question are: the interpretations of the social formation of the American countries and, consequently, the investigation of the particularities of the revolutionary independence processes; the fight against imperialism, notably the US; the subservient alliances of domestic elites with foreign ones; the agrarian issue (latifundia, etc.), as one of the main factors in the political, economic and social formation of our nations.


From the external meaning of colonization to imperialism

As a premise of the fundamental causes that underlie the inequalities produced in Latin American countries, we point out the “external meaning” of our colonization – a concept developed by Caio Prado Júnior (2000) –, a process that links the mercantile vector of our national evolution to the expansion of the world market. Through colonization, subject to a dominating metropolis, we were inserted into a system of power in which commercial and financial circuits followed the logic of unequal exchange, based on the precept of “buying cheap and selling dear”. This logic – materialized at the expense of the spoliation of wealth, genocide and enslavement of native American and African peoples – was the basis of the primitive accumulation of capital (MARX, 2013), becoming the foundation of the social formation of the countries of America.

It is important to note that the insertion of Latin American countries in primitive accumulation is at the base of their economic and social formation; while this enabled unprecedented accumulation in the central countries, it impeded development in the colonies – by extorting their wealth by sending it abroad (CUEVA, 1983). This process, maintained for more than three centuries, shaped the colonial heritage and the economic, social, cultural and political matrix of our nations. In fact, Caio Prado himself generalizes to other countries on the continent his classic assertion of the Brazilian “meaning of colonization”: Brazil as part of the European capitalist business (PRADO Jr., 2000).[I]

Taking this statement at its root means understanding the training produced here as a unique experience of the colonization, which subjects the sense of building our entire social structure to the interests of the European market (VIEIRA, 2018). The particularity of our colonization has as a basic triad: the latifundio; the trend towards monoculture; and compulsory labor (ultimately, slavery). As a consequence of this combination, the crystallization of a segregated society took place, which responded to the accumulation needs demanded by the central economies of capitalism.

The unpalatable colonial legacy was not overcome by the political independence – restricted and incomplete – that took place in the first three quarters of the 1983th century. Such truncated independence processes responded only to changes in the dominance of central countries, and represent an oligarchic-dependent pattern of capitalist development (CUEVA, XNUMX). In general, Latin American societies, generated from the independence processes, continued to have their mode of production based on enslavement, land concentration and the production of primary goods, mainly aimed at the foreign market.

The emancipation of the colonial statute, in addition to not meaning the overcoming of fundamental determinants of the previous period, maintained its core and allowed the deepening of its roots, in particular, by the greater insertion of countries in the world market, based on the interests of the new imperial domain that imposed itself: that of England. Thus, the decline of the Iberian countries (Portugal and Spain), the first usurpers of American peoples and territories, and the implementation of political independence processes did not mean a break in the conditions of unequal exchange and orientation of production based on external demands.

On the contrary, some countries were more actively involved in maintaining the same logic. This greater integration into the world market occurred from two vectors: the real conditions of each country, and the changes resulting from the advance of industrialization in the core countries of the capitalist system. In this way, Chile, Brazil and then Argentina, which had developed economic infrastructure in the colonial phase and were able to produce stable political conditions, first entered (MARINI, 2017).

The end of the XNUMXth century was marked by significant changes in the geopolitical systemic center: new powers were projected abroad, especially Germany and the United States – the latter, with a policy particularly centered on the American continent. In central countries there is also a reorganization of production, based on the increase in heavy industry and technology. In this way, the economy starts to concentrate its productive units, creating the conditions for the emergence of monopolies. This characteristic is the main mark of the new phase of development of capitalism: imperialism.

According to Lenin (1987), until the transition from the XNUMXth to the XNUMXth century, the basis of the economic system was free competition and free trade, in which the concentration of production and capital, and the emergence of monopolies were the main main features. From the emergence of monopolies, a fundamental mark of imperialism, the process of capitalist accumulation would produce an increasing tendency towards concentration, both of industrial capital and financial capital. The result of this reorganization were large monopolies thirsty for new markets and new sources of raw material, which would force the annexation of less industrially developed regions of the planet. In his words “capitalism has become a universal system of colonial oppression and financial asphyxiation of the immense majority of the world's population by a handful of 'advanced' countries”.

This new international division of labor, orchestrated by the imperialist nations, made it possible for them to retain high profits and transfer the social and economic costs of maintaining their wealth to other nations. In this way, they were able to maintain their position of hegemonic dominance, based on the reproduction of underdevelopment, poverty and dependence of the nations they subjugated, such as those in Latin America. In this context, it is worth characterizing the role assumed by the bourgeoisie in Latin American countries, but for that it is necessary to first highlight a fundamental characteristic of the economy of the peripheral countries, with their economy based on exports: unlike the central countries, in which economic activity is subordinated to the relationship between the rates of surplus value and investment, in dependent countries the fundamental economic mechanism comes from the export-import relationship. Thus, even if surplus value is obtained within the economy, it will be realized in the external market, through export activity. That is, the surplus that can be invested is directly influenced by external factors, and the surplus value realized in the sphere of world trade belongs mostly to foreign capitalists, with the local bourgeoisie remaining – in the national economy – only a part of that surplus value. .

These losses, however, were compensated by the Latin American bourgeoisies through the increase in the absolute value of surplus value, which means the greater expropriation and submission of workers, a phenomenon that Marini (2017) named as “overexploitation of the workforce”, and which constitutes, in the words of the author, “the fundamental principle of the underdeveloped economy, with all that this implies in terms of low wages, lack of employment opportunities, illiteracy, malnutrition and police repression”. In summary, compensation at the level of the sphere of circulation is a mechanism that operates at the level of internal production in Latin American countries and the super-exploitation of workers is linked to the productive forces of these economies, fundamentally due to the fact that the most important economic activity is subject to to the production of primary goods (MARINI, 1990).

This complex economic and social formation, based on large estates and the trend towards monoculture, always had the support and profits of the dominant classes, local minority partners of the capitalists of powerful nations. They are bourgeois sectors that benefited from unequal exchanges and acted as intermediaries and representatives of international capital. Identifying this particular dynamic of domination imposed on Latin American countries is essential to seek to build a real emancipation movement: without overcoming capitalism and imperialism, which take advantage of foundations rooted in the colonial heritage, there is no possibility of guaranteeing the conditions access to common goods and socially produced wealth.

It was in the deepening of the contradictions generated by the advance of US power over the countries of America that the Marxist struggles and reflections on imperialism and the particularities of Latin American capitalism developed. The identification of US imperialism as a special enemy of the other peoples of America is already evident in the first decades of the new century. The same did not occur, however, in relation to the deleterious character of the “internal bourgeoisies” formerly called “national bourgeoisies”. And here is one of the most controversial issues in the theoretical clashes of the first decades of the twentieth century, a debate in which great Marxists stood out who authentically interpreted the national issues of their countries (and even of Latin America as a whole), such as the Peruvian José Carlos Mariátegui, the Cuban Julio Antonio Mella and the Brazilian Caio Prado Júnior, among other thinkers.

It is worth noting that, in these first decades, in addition to the aforementioned Russian Revolution (1917) and other important advances in the organization of city and rural workers – such as the University Reform of Córdoba (1918), trade union organization, the creation of new political parties and worker-peasant alliances –, the impact of the Mexican Revolution (1910) is also highlighted, a process that fostered the exchange of politics and ideas among peoples across America.


The internal anti-national bourgeoisies of Latin America

From a perspective linked to revolutionary praxis, in addition to the problem of imperialism, another fundamental issue for the peoples of America is the need to objectively understand the limiting political action operated by Latin American “internal bourgeoisies” – a ruling class that was never “national” , as thought, especially in the first half of the XNUMXth century, by certain critical theorists, but always subaltern allies of the bourgeoisie in the core countries of capitalism. Classes, therefore, “anti-national”.

Considering that the process of political emancipation is at the origin of the nation, the aftermath of this movement implies the socio-historical particularities of the sectors that make up the social classes created here. The problem, which directly involves the national question, is linked to recurrent and fundamental themes of the Marxist tradition, such as: the forms and social relations that are organized in our countries, society and the State (IANNI, 1995).

Reflection on the “national question” dates back to the 1991th century, when in Europe there was an intense debate about the meaning of “nation”. In this period, “nations” such as Serbia, Ireland and Czechia – peoples with their own ethnicity and language – were under occupation by the imperialist powers of the time (HOBSBAWM, XNUMX). The idea that the “nation” would be characterized by ethno-linguistic “unity” gains strength; and therefore each of these units was to be united politically into a single state.

This issue, thematized in the context of international communism by Lenin and Rosa Luxemburgo, imposes the need not only to recover the very consolidation of political institutions that lead to the direction and organization of the State, but also to address aspects that make explicit the unequal and oppressive order dominated by imperialist nations.

To exemplify how the national question was a decisive theme for the context that preceded the “October Revolution”, Rosa Luxemburgo draws attention to the program of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party (RSDP) and its legitimate concerns about the issue.. In the RSDLP program, the leader of the Spartacists showed how important was the suppression of the States and the complete equality of rights for all citizens, without difference of “sex, religion, race, or nationality” and still, proclaimed the premises that the “population of the nation must have the right to attend free and autonomous schools that teach the national language”, and “to use their language in assemblies, as well as in all state and public offices” (LUXEMBOURG, 1988).

Among the exponents of the communist parties in Germany and Russia, it is Lenin who demonstrates, in addition to the class struggle inside and outside the national territories, the existence of the struggle between the “oppressor nations” and the “oppressed nations”, which must also be studied in the classist horizon of the correlation of forces and the social, political and economic conditions that define the structures of a given social class. In an attempt to defend the position of the communists in relation to national struggles to confront imperialism, the intellectual and Bolshevik leader recognizes that “until now, our common experience on this subject is not very great, but little by little we will gather documentation that is increasingly more abundant” – identifying the national question as a decisive element for the consolidation of “revolutionary needs” (LÊNIN, 1971).

This discussion imposed, since the 1988th century, great debates and divergences within the socialist movement: Rosa Luxemburgo herself disagreed with Lenin, due to the idea of ​​the “bourgeois origins of the national polemic” (LUXEMBOURG, 1986). Later, the issue was incorporated into debates on the program of the Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party (RSDLP). Lenin, as one of the leaders of the party, always had the topic on the agenda. His assertions in this regard indicated that in Russia it would not be possible to make the socialist revolution triumph without giving special attention to the national question: because the ideology of the State of national-liberalism intends to safeguard “the state privileges of the Great Russian bourgeoisie” (LENIN , XNUMX).

The controversy with Rosa Luxemburg derives from Lenin's understanding that the German revolutionary did not realize how fundamental the national question is for the autonomy of nations – and, therefore, its importance for the revolutionary project. For Rosa, Lenin's defense of the national question would result in the restructuring of the bourgeois national state. However, it is important to emphasize here that such an assessment does not correspond to Lenin's assertions, for whom the self-determination of nations must be one of the demands of the revolutionary party's program, which, like so many others, can only be fully implemented when the socialist revolution is victorious.

It is noted that Lenin's effort goes in the direction of elaborating some theses on the national question, without taking the “assault on heaven” from the horizon, as a central purpose within the order of capital and the consequent class struggle faced by the RSDLP. The particular trait unraveled is to understand that the class struggle takes place within a “national terrain”, acquiring an “international character”. The struggle of the working class against exploitation demands firm solidarity and close unity of the workers of all nations, just as resistance to the “bourgeois nationalist” policy is irrespective of their nationality. In this way, the class character of the national question needs to be understood so that it does not generate illusions and confusion among the working class, thus avoiding, as Lenin rightly points out: “dividing for the enjoyment of the bourgeoisie”; “the denial of the right to self-determination will mean, in practice, support for the privileges of the dominant nation” (LENIN, 1986).


In america

When we observe the case of America, we soon realize that this notion of “nation”, unlike the Europeans and even the Asians, does not suit our peoples. It is not appropriate to think of our mestizo nations predominantly in ethnic terms, much less linguistically (given our languages ​​imposed by the metropolises). These prefabricated formats of interpretation that reached us (and still do) from the European reality, disturbed the authenticity of many analyzes of the critical tradition, especially until the middle of the XNUMXth century.

To enter into this debate, it is first necessary to realize – as Caio Prado (2000) shows – that our countries were constituted from the mercantile expansion of European borders. This condition places us on the “periphery” of capitalism, this system whose consolidation would be based not only on material riches, but also on American knowledge (CASTRO, 1951).

Such discussions were central in these times of formation of an authentic reflection on the national realities, leading to a problematic polarization: in one of the extremes, the Marxists of mechanistic or dogmatic conception, that tried to artificially frame our realities in the European model (held then as being "universal"); on the other hand, progressive intellectuals, sometimes close to Marxism, but excessively relativist, who deviate from the totalizing critical tradition by exaggerating the supposed “regional specificities” of their peoples (LÖWY, 2006).

From these two flawed conceptions, errors of historical interpretation would arise that would lead to serious political mistakes. In the field of revisionist ideas, the nationalist-eclectic thought of Haya de la Torre – of the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance – stands out, who defends that Marxism would be a “European” thought, born of foreign societies, and that therefore it would not serve the analyzes of the America. This is a position derived from the petty bourgeoisie, and which would result in a kind of “philanthropic” indigenism (MARTINS-FONTES, 2018).

Haya visited the USSR and was an admirer of Lenin, but not the total Lenin – intellectual and man of action –, rather the great leader who mobilized crowds. In addition, it absorbed certain anti-imperialist ideas (HAYA DE LA TORRE, 2017) – but only to the extent that it interested the bourgeois-national aprist paternalism, with its pretensions of a great libertarian vanguard.

At the other pole of these mistakes, the error of vulgar Marxism (of a Eurocentric matrix) derives from the attempt to elaborate the problems of America within schemes that, although they may have been correct in the case of European peoples, were not adequate for our peoples, harming the elaboration of a fairer vision that could have had practical effectiveness. This problem had its historical “resolution”, as is known, in the harsh defeat suffered by the socialist movement in our countries from the 1960s onwards, with the installation of military counterrevolutionary regimes with a Bonapartist profile (RAGO FILHO, 2001).

Among the fundamental questions concerning these debates is the idea that in our nations colonialism had shaped “feudal” modes of production – and that this left us with remnants after independence, and therefore it was necessary to carry out a previous “revolution”. bourgeois”. A consequence of this would be the strategic orientation that defended the alliance of the communists, in a submissive way, to fractions of the dominant classes (parts of the bourgeoisie that were believed to have “national” interests).

From the vast social and theoretical consequences of the Russian Revolution, the Communist International would be created, an organization within which Marxist discussions on the reality of the peoples of America would deepen. In these new debates, great American critical thinkers would come to play a leading role, providing accurate historical-dialectical interpretations of our national issues, concepts that converge to the need for an independent workers’ movement (uniting countryside and city), which – although it may establish urgent urgent alliances – do not submit to supposedly “national” (non-existent) bourgeois groups. Today, in a context of worsening structural crisis of the system, with consequent increase in capitalist violence (currently in neoliberal form), we see the real face of the Latin American bourgeoisie: surrender, anti-national and even fascist, when it feels its power threatened.

*Yuri Martins-Fontes holds a PhD in economic history (USP/CNRS). Author, among other books, of Marx in America: the praxis of Caio Prado and Mariátegui (Mall).

*Solange Struwka it's ddoctorate in social psychology from USP.

*Paulo Alves Jr., doctor in sociology from Unesp, is a professor of history at Unilab (BA).

Revised version of the first part of the article “Critical thinking and the national question in interwar Latin America”, chapter of the book The cultural dimension in integration processes between Latin American countries (Prolam-USP/FFLCH-USP, 2021).



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MARTINS-FONTES, Yuri. Marx in America: the praxis of Caio Prado and Mariátegui. São Paulo: Alameda/Fapesp, 2018.

MARTINS-FONTES, Y. STRUWKA, S.; ALVES Jr., P. Critical thinking and the national question in interwar Latin America. In: SUZUKI; NEPOMUCENO; ARAÚJO (org.). The cultural dimension in integration processes between Latin American countries. São Paulo: PROLAM-USP/FFLCH-USP, 2021. Available at

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[I] Gaius Prado Jr. extends his idea from Brazil to Latin America in an interesting manuscript, unfortunately little known and which has not yet been published in a book due to problems related to copyright, since the author has not yet publicly released his work, and his heirs still hold economic rights over the Marxist's writings and dissemination of ideas; see: “Tropical Zones of America” (11/07/1936), belonging to the Caio Prado Jr. Fund/ IEB-USP Archive: reference CPJ-CA024a, p.89-117 (notebook).

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