perpetual supreme dictator

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The myth of egalitarianism by José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia

José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia (1766-1840), recognized intellectual, main leader of the Paraguayan anticolonial process, and Supreme Dictator Perpetual of the Republic of Paraguay between 1814 and 1840, he is a historical character as enigmatic as he is fascinating. Although his political figure is almost unknown in Brazil and in other Latin American countries, overshadowed by the trajectory of great leaders such as Simón Bolívar, José de San Martín or Antonio José de Sucre, there are few names that spark as much controversy as his.

The personality of this solitary lawyer, doctor of theology and former professor at the only seminary in colonial Asunción emerges in a dramatic context and, due to an exceptional combination of factors, occupies a preponderant place among the leaders of Paraguayan independence from the former Spanish Empire.

Between 1811 and 1814, overcoming all kinds of opposition, these same critical circumstances favored his rise to unipersonal and absolute power. Since 1814, Paraguay would not know any other law than the decisions of Doctor Francia. However, unlike other dictators of his time, José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia was not a merchant, a wealthy landowner or a military caudillo. He was a "literate". He didn't win battles or gain power through “quarters”; his positions were conferred on him by national Congresses (1813, 1814 and 1816) with broad and representative participation. Many Latin American leaders experienced exile and ostracism, others assassination motivated by countless political disputes. It was not the case of Supreme, who would rule Paraguay with an iron fist until his death in September 1840.

The dictatorial regime, the supposed commercial and political “isolation”, the “autarchy essay” on the economic issue, its anticlerical measures, its agrarian policy, its foreign policy of “non-intervention” in the political crises of the River Plate, relations with Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro – in times when the two regional powers did not recognize Paraguayan independence –, his personal participation in the political and military organization of the smallest details of the nascent national State and even his personality – austere and rough –, are facets that, covered in a certain mystery, continue to arouse the interest of researchers inside and outside Paraguay.[*]

The political legacy of José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, as I mentioned, is a source of heated controversy. The traditional historiography of his work is roughly divided between stubborn apologists and detractors. For the former, commonly aligned with nationalist interpretations, the Supreme he is no less than the “father of the country”, the “creator of nationality”; for the latter, identified with the liberal or neoliberal school, José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia is nothing more than a bloodthirsty tyrant, who capriciously isolated Paraguay from the benefits of economic and cultural progress resulting from the disintegration of the viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata.

Unfortunately, in an effort to differentiate itself from liberal historiography, an important sector of the intelligentsia identified with the political spectrum of the left, adhered, more or less explicitly, to the premises of the nationalist school, including the personality cult of Doctor Francia and other dictators Paraguayans in the XNUMXth century. In this article, I will discuss this revisionism, said to be leftist and progressive.

Any falsification of reality, past or present, is detrimental to the working class in its struggle to improve its material and cultural conditions of existence. The ruling class is fully aware of this. Hence its determination to impose on the rest of society – through a powerful superstructure – the worldview and values ​​that best serve the perpetuation of its privileges. Marx and Engels said in 1845 that “the ideas of the ruling class are at all times the ruling ideas, that is, the class which is the ruling material power of society is at the same time its ruling spiritual power. ”.[†]

However, the study of history is based on facts, does not allow distortions and requires scientific rigor. Myths, therefore, cannot be fought by creating other myths. A legend that, unfortunately, was assumed by a portion of the so-called left and even by Marxist scholars is that of the “social egalitarianism” that supposedly prevailed during the dictatorship of Doctor Francia.

It is notable that the nickname “leveler” and the analyzes that assert that “social classes were diluted” in Paraguay between 1813 and 1840 were functional to the two traditional currents of historical interpretation, which, in their times, acquired status official: liberalism and bourgeois nationalism, in all their variants. The first used them to vilify the figure of the dictator Francia; the second, to bow before her.

But what started out as exaggeration in some cases degenerated into delirium. Especially when some authors claim that the supreme he was not just a “Jacobin”, that is, a radical Enlightenment revolutionary, but the defender of a “proto-socialist” project.[‡] In other words, the Paraguayan dictator would be at least 35 years ahead of his own Communist Manifesto.

Now, the sooner these assumptions are discarded, the better we will be able to fully understand this process from a materialist conception of history. Neither José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia was egalitarian, nor did social classes “dilute” during his government. And not for any moral problem or other essentially subjective reason, nor for any reason that strictly concerns the individual named José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia. He was not an egalitarian – much less a “protosocialist” – nor could he be, because he belonged to a historical period in which the objective conditions did not exist to develop a project of this nature.

It is necessary to understand that the dictator Francia, as an individual, was part of a much larger socioeconomic and political process: the cycle of bourgeois revolutions, which in the Americas expressed itself as a continental sequence of anticolonial revolutions, that is, essentially political revolutions that , depending on each case, have been more or less advanced in the economic and social field. The Paraguayan ruler was the result of this historical context, not the other way around.

And it is undeniable that, for external and internal reasons independent of his will, the dictator Francia went far beyond what he apparently intended: nationalization of land, policy of leasing at modest prices for a poor sector of the peasantry, state monopoly on the trade of the main items export, etc. These protectionist and statist measures were certainly progressive and very advanced in the regional context.

The Brazilian historian Francisco Doratioto himself, in no way a “Francoist”, admits that: “In the middle of the 90th century, the Guarani State owned almost 80% of the national territory and practically controlled economic activities, since almost XNUMX% of the commerce internal and external was the property of the State”.[§]

However, the confiscation of a portion of the old and traditional landlord class and the consequent nationalizations did not eliminate class society or the mercantile economy. On the contrary, they laid the foundations for a possible more accelerated dynamic of capitalist development, although the material basis of this process was archaic.

Thus, the first premise I offer the reader is: Francia had a bourgeois project – applied to the concrete conditions of the Paraguayan case, which inherited very backward productive forces from the colony – therefore in no way “egalitarian” nor “protosocialist”. As Lenin points out, “there can be no egalitarianism in commodity production”.[**]

The project of the incipient pre-war Paraguayan ruling class dynamically aimed to establish – even if it took decades and dragged along all kinds of continuities of the old colonial society – the capitalist mode of production as hegemonic.

We must not lose sight of the fact that, by its very nature as a class, no bourgeois revolution has aspired to a complete democratization of society. Much less claimed any kind of “egalitarianism”. When the bourgeois revolutionaries of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, even the most radical ones, fought for freedom, it was freedom for their own class, for themselves and theirs; never for the exploited classes nor for the oppressed.

There were exceptional and relatively short episodes in which sectors of the petty bourgeoisie led the process, generally more daringly than the big bourgeoisie, but even so, they did so in the service of a capitalist project. This is because, historically, the petty bourgeoisie did not, does not and will not have an independent role, either economically or politically, in the class struggle – simply because it is not a fundamental class in bourgeois society.

On the other hand, some bourgeois-democratic revolutions certainly engendered egalitarian sectors, which not only claimed full political rights, but also questioned, in a pioneering way, private property. This is the case, for example, of diggers (the radical wing of the levelers, the levellers) during the XNUMXth-century English Revolution; of the rabid indomitables (enraged) in the French Revolution, which were crushed by the Jacobins themselves; or, more emblematically, of François Babeuf, who, in 1796, organized the failed Conspiracy of the Equals against the Directory that had taken power after the Thermidorian reaction. Babeuf had the merit of programmatically overcoming the diggers, the Jacobins, Hebertists and enraged – all defenders of equality within the limits of small property – insofar as he dared to defend the abolition of private property. He was guillotined, but his ideas inspired future generations.

Considering the above, it could be argued that the dictator Francia, although in an individual and utopian way, defended a similar program. But this is also not true. None of the ideas we have pointed out is present in the writings – or in the acts – of the Supreme.

Not only were social classes not “leveled”, but also the reduced indigenous population – about 30% of the population – continued to be segregated in “people” or reductions, controlled by white “corregidors” and subject to the obligation to provide labor, usually free of charge, required by the State.

Blacks, who made up about 10% of the population, remained largely enslaved. Another part was exiled to a place called Tevego, in the north of the country, a “village of blacks” that would serve as a “wall” against the terrible incursions of the Guaicurus indigenous people, who frequently attacked the town of Concepción.

In fact, after independence, slaves confiscated from the Spaniards, the Porteños, the local conspirators or the Catholic Church were not freed, and became property of the State, which forced them to work in public works and in the Estancias de la República. The Dictator himself – as well as the López family, his successors in power – owned domestic slaves, and did not hesitate to attack his enemies with the accusation of being “mulatto”.

If the so-called left does not recognize this, if it does not explain it, it is simply colluding with these horrendous forms of exploitation that took place during the XNUMXth century. The issue is very serious. Even worse, this last problem – which is part of the harmful personality cult of national heroes on the part of a certain “patriotic” left – opens up a completely indefensible flank in the polemic with liberalism.

As the nationalist left convinced itself that its duty was to preach a non-existent social paradise – “without poor and illiterate people” – in pre-war Paraguay, it placed in the hands of not a few liberals the necessary criticism of black slavery and even exploitation of indigenous peoples. What a paradox!

It is an undeniable fact that Doctor Francia, a wealthy lawyer, was forced to question the interests of a faction of the old province's traditional oligarchy, especially that with more connections to foreign trade. But that does not make it a “people's government”, as nationalism and left revisionism label it. It simply demonstrates that there was a struggle between bourgeois sectors and that the dictator Francia, relying on proprietary but non-traditional social sectors, had a side in that struggle, the winning side.

Of course, it is admissible to recognize that, in the XNUMXth century, the nationalist and protectionist bourgeois sector, embodied in the Supreme, was “more progressive” – in the capitalist sense, obviously – than the anti-nationalist and free-trade sector. However, this premise does not diminish the bourgeois character of either.

In short: to argue with obsolete and anti-national liberalism, I insist, it is not necessary to recreate any socioeconomic Eden in Paraguay before 1864. It is not necessary to exaggerate anything, nor to worship the fathers of capitalism and the national state. This is incompatible with Marxism, a scientific doctrine that does not admit any kind of personality cult. Such a position, in addition to being unrelated to the scientific method of studying history, does nothing to contribute to the debate with Triple Alliance apologists.

The background discussion with liberalism is more complex. The question is whether the period between 1813 and 1870 was progressive or backward on a historical and global scale. What is fundamental, for a Marxist interpretation, is to demonstrate that, in the context of the XNUMXth century, the bourgeois project of making the nation independent of the Iberian metropolis and the Buenos Aires sub-metropolis, that is, of breaking colonial ties, strengthening the national State and, above all, , to nationalize the land, was essentially progressive and therefore constituted a model that should be defended.

The dictator Francia undoubtedly played a central role in implementing this anti-colonial program. Point. The rest is anachronism or simply historical falsification.

*Ronald Leon Nunez holds a doctorate in economic history from USP. Author, among other books, of The War against Paraguay under debate (sundermann).

Translation: Marcos Margarido.

Originally published in the newspaper ABC Color.


[*] NUÑEZ, Ronald Leon. The political and economic thought of José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia: 1814-1840. 2015. Dissertation (Master in Economic History) – Faculty of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences, University of São Paulo, São Paulo, 2015. doi:10.11606/D.8.2015.tde-05112015-144136. Accessed on: 18/01/2023.

[†] MARX, Karl; ENGELS, Friedrich. 1846. The German ideology. Barcelona: Grijalbo, 1974, p. 50.

[‡] CORONEL, Bernard. Brief Marxist interpretation of Paraguayan history [-1537 2011]. Asuncion: Arandura, 2011, P. 61.

[§] DORATIOTO, Francis. Damn War. New history of the Paraguayan War, São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2002, p. 44.

[**] LENIN, Vladimir I.. 1907. The agrarian question. Madrid: Ayuso, 1975, p. 75.

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