Developmentalist Brazil and the trajectory of Rômulo Almeida

Janet Ledger, Wash Day


Commentary on the recently released book by Alexandre de Freitas Barbosa

Peripheral countries tend to be demanding with their intellectuals. First: they demand aanalytical invention”, because its social, political and cultural subjects are contrary to several of the assumptions that support theories forged in central nations, usually universalized in a wrong way. On the other hand, peripheral countries also tend to call on their intellectuals to act in practice – whether in politics (in elective or technical positions, or even in party bureaucracy) or in socially capillarized institutions, such as the mass media. In short, they also require an ability "policy of inventing. Under such conditions, the links between thought and sociopolitical life become clear.

This is the case of Brazil, where, since independence – which completes 200 years this year – an original thought, although not always systematic, has been formed, dedicated so much to understanding its specificities, often in connection with external influxes, such as the guide practices capable of overcoming the conditions bequeathed by colonization.

Several of the difficulties and potentialities involved in this tense process are indicated in two recent books by the economist and historian Alexandre de Freitas Barbosa, Developmentalist Brazil and the trajectory of Rômulo Almeida (Alameda) and A reformist nationalist on the periphery of the system: reflections on political economy (Fine Trace).

Before examining each of the publications, it is worth calling attention to the obvious contrasts between the two. The vast book about the trajectory of the Bahian economist Rômulo Almeida – originating from the author's Habilitation thesis, defended at the Institute of Brazilian Studies (IEB) of the University of São Paulo (USP) – perfectly represents the style of work required by the routine university. In it, we find a detailed research on an important character, although little known, in the intellectual and political elaboration of what the author calls “developmental Brazil”, a category we will return to below.

Yes, A reformist nationalist on the periphery of the system: reflections on political economy it is a book of an entirely different order. Contrary to the specialized research that gave rise to the book mentioned in the previous paragraph, A reformist nationalist collects more than 40 texts from intervention dthe author, which deal with themes as varied as Brazilian intellectual history, the dilemmas of contemporary Brazil (including the coup against Dilma Rousseff and the rise of Bolsonarism), international trade, the rise of the Chinese economy and the global crisis we have been going through since 2008.

As a non-Economist, I make special mention of articles dealing with political economy, many of which appeared in journals such as Valor Econômico e Folha de São Paulo. Not only do they reveal the public nature that presides over Barbosa's thinking, who does not shy away from proposing alternatives, but they also seek to synthesize and explain the economic debates and make them accessible to the public not versed in the subject. Thus, the democratic evaluative orientation of the reflection becomes democratic way of thinking, whose strength acquires a special effect if we take into account that the texts circulated, most of the time, in spaces dominated by economic orthodoxy.

Having made the initial observations, the questions that immediately arise are two: is there unity in this diversity? And what do the books reveal about the author's position? Let's start with the Habilitation thesis.


One analysis, two plans

Where to start? Start with the title Developmentalist Brazil and the trajectory of Rômulo Almeida may be appropriate because it clearly reveals the elements that articulate Barbosa's undertaking. Elements, by the way, very different, but equally important for the structure of the book. In other words, although the publication is the product of research on “Rômulo Almeida's trajectory”, it is, in fact, much more than that. In order to interpret the course of the Bahian economist, the author found himself in the contingency of constructing a broad historical-interpretative scheme with several consequences.

Then the role of the notion – or would it be a concept? –“Developmentist Brazil”. To an inattentive reader, it might seem that this is just the name that Barbosa coined to designate the Brazilian historical period between 1945 and 1964, classically known as the “Populist Republic”. The author's refusal to designate it in this way illuminates his intent, made explicit in the subtitle of the work: to draw attention to the articulation between project, interpretation and utopia (a concept taken from Karl Mannheim) developed by the "organic intellectuals of the State" around of the links between “development” and “nation”. It is the vicissitudes involved in this articulation, and the role played by Rômulo Almeida, that are at stake in the book.

Let us note the polemics implied in the notion of “developmental Brazil”. The first, to a certain extent classic, is the refusal of the Marxist interpretation gestated among sociologists at the University of São Paulo (USP) – called “intellectuals critical of the academy” – to explain “the collapse of populism”, as indicated in a famous book by Octavio Ianni, The collapse of populism. Instead of a handicap structural of the development project formulated by civic bohemians and other intellectuals, the author points out the problems cyclical responsible for the 1964 coup.

Hence the emphasis given to the agency of individuals – in particular, of intellectuals –, well represented in the attention given to the wide range of characters in the political drama of the period. Between the analysis of the social structure and the unique trajectory of Rômulo Almeida, the book, aware that a political and intellectual trajectory does not take place in a vacuum of social relations, ends up building a prosopography of the intelligentsia Brazilian of the period.

More decisive, however, is the second polemic, which consists of denying that the accumulation of capital carried out by the military should be understood in the light of the concept of “developmentalism”. More precisely, this would not be a developmentalist period, in spite of the state's participation in economic development, precisely because it lacks the utopia developmental egalitarianism. In Mannheimian terms, 1964 would represent the inflection of utopia to ideology. If so, we are, as can be seen, facing a demanding concept of “developmentalism”, which would involve more than the combination of economic planning and industrializing emphasis. This would require a political invention, which is only possible from a combination of evaluative orientation and analytical imagination.

The reasoning has far-reaching consequences and brings us to the third dimension of polemics. In Koselleckian waters, it establishes controversy with the very history of the concept of “developmentalism” in Brazil, based, in the author’s view, on an insufficient understanding of its original meaning – which implies the questioning of another historiographical canon, which interprets the fifty years comprised between 1930 and 1980 in the light of “developmentalism”. It also reverberates in the contemporary debate among left-wing Brazilian economists, who discuss the “developmentalist” dimension of PT governments (2002-2016). From Barbosa's perspective, the key would be the presence – or rather, the absence, as we will see below – of a “national project”. In short, the polemic about the historicization of history, so to speak, does not happen for individual whim, but for a theoretical and evaluative orientation that lends it meaning by articulating a certain vision of the past to the dilemmas of the present.

The reasoning provides the cue for us to move on to the great character of the book, Rômulo Almeida. The choice is not obvious. As Barbosa himself points out, the Bahian economist, in addition to being little remembered, is not the author of essays or classic works. On the contrary, his writings are scattered and varied in nature. In a way, therefore, the author seeks to examine “developmental Brazil” from the perspective of a peripheral (and/or peripheralized?) character in historiography, although central to history.

Two consequences of this choice stand out. The first: by examining history from a “praxist” point of view (the term comes from Almeida himself), the book indicates that it is less concerned with capturing the ideological coherence forged in a system of ideas and more interested in the historical process. then ongoing and in the way agents interact. Without despising thought – after all, what would interpretation, design and utopia be if not ideas? –, the author attacks the place where it becomes a productive force, once articulated to the interests of the different groups in conflict.

In this sense, and this is the second consequence worth calling attention to, the multifaceted trajectory of Rômulo Almeida allows us to indicate that what was at stake was not restricted to the economic plan, although this was fundamental. When criticizing the assumptions of routine historical periodization on the period between 1930-1980, Barbosa clarifies: “It starts from the assumption that development is a matter for economists and is, therefore, limited to its economic matrix. Nothing could be further from the way Rômulo Almeida and the organic intellectuals of the State thought” (BARBOSA, 2021, p. 521).

From this perspective, it is impossible not to notice the affinity between Almeida's iconoclasm and the way in which the study itself was constructed. Unlike those who seek theoretical security and peer validation in canonical notions, Barbosa does not shy away from coining concepts, which, intertwined, give the book a very particular tone. In addition to the already mentioned “developmentalist Brazil”, we find “fragments of generations”, “market intellectuals”, “organic State intellectuals”, among many others. Conceptual detailing is not at stake here, but the deliberate construction of a toolbox that is useful in transmitting the message. In short, we are facing a “praxist” conception of intellectual work.

The previous observations also allow highlighting the importance that Barbosa gives to intellectuals. Not because he chooses them as objects of study in themselves or because he brings, implicitly, an elitist conception of the process of production and circulation of ideas. On the contrary: in the author's perspective, similar to that of his inspiring masters, intellectuals matter for the privileged place they occupy in the process of formulating ideas and the ability to put them into practice. They matter, therefore, not in themselves, but for their position and social function. We are far from a naive and uncritical conception of these characters, today in decline. In fact, as we will see in the following text, Alexandre draws theoretical and practical consequences from this conception.

*Leonardo Belinelli holds a doctorate in political science from USP, associate researcher at the Center for the Study of Contemporary Culture (CEDEC) and editor of the Brazilian Journal of Bibliographic Information in Social Sciences (BIB/ANPOCS).

Originally published on New Moon Newsletter.



Alexandre de Freitas Barbosa. Developmental Brazil and the trajectory of Rômulo Almeida: project, interpretation and utopia. Sao Paulo, Ed. Alameda, 2021, 580 pages.

Alexandre de Freitas Barbosa. A reformist nationalist on the periphery of the system: reflections on political economy. Belo Horizonte, Fino Traço, 2021.


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