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Review of Intellectuals and the Search for National Identity in Twentieth-Century Brazil

by Philip Roberts on December 11, 2015

The story of Brazil in the twentieth-century could easily be told simply through the lens of economic development. Existing almost as a colonial satellite of Europe, Brazil before 1930 was an agricultural exporter, selling coffee, sugar, cocoa and rubber to more developed nations. The vast majority of the population lived in the countryside, and relations between owners and producers did not fit the classical model of capitalism. After the 1930 coup d’état led by Getúlio Vargas, Brazil set out on a new path defined by rapid capitalist development on the one hand, and profound social exclusion on the other. By the dawn of the twenty-first century Brazil had become and urbanized industrial economy, the foremost regional power of Latin America, and part of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) group that was predicted to define global growth in the near future. More than this, it had become a nation.

If the story of Brazil’s ascent is well-known in the Anglophone world, the intellectual history that accompanies it is virtually a mystery. For those who view intellectuals like an elite stood above society as objective observers, this is no great problem. However, if we follow Gramsci’s observation that intellectuals are always deeply imbedded in social, political and economic life, then the popular awareness of Brazil’s development is clearly incomplete. Intellectuals and the Search for National Identity in Twentieth-Century Brazil is a timely work by Professor Emeritus Ronald. H. Chilcote which seeks to address this deficit.

ChilcoteThe book overviews the establishment and growth of a specifically Brazilian intellectual current during the 20th Century. Based on his experience researching the Brazilian economy, but also on direct interviews with key figures, Chilcote gives detailed insights into the ways in which familiar debates developed in context. The focus of the text is on how the Left conceptualized particular issues affecting Brazil during its development. Major topics covered are national identity, dependency and development, the bourgeois revolution, and the importance of democracy to progressive struggles. Taking this approach, Chilcote demonstrates how Brazil’s intellectuals formed schools of thought that were distinct from those observed in Europe and the United States over the same period. Moreover, adopting an approach drawn from Antonio Gramsci, Chilcote explores how the Brazilian Left were involved in ‘counterhegemonic’ struggle during the transformation of intellectual life that coincided with capitalist modernisation.

Gramsci’s analysis of hegemony is particularly important to the method of the book. Alongside viewing intellectuals as attached to class projects, Gramsci also recognised the material apparatus of hegemony, including journals, newspapers and publishing houses, necessary for intellectual labour to influence society. Likewise, Chilcote focuses not only on particular intellectuals, but also the journals, publishers and research groups in which they participated. Aptly, this reflects Chilcote’s own intellectual practice as a founding editor of Latin American Perspectives, a journal established to address issues of political repression, social inequality and economic dependency that were omitted from mainstream outlets, as analysed by Jawdat Abu-El-Haj.

Accordingly, this is not a book devoted to the study of a few great Brazilians in depth. Though Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Caio Prado Júnior and Florestan Fernandes all feature, they are given equal treatment to other, less well-known figures such as Jacob Gorender. This is in equal parts enlightening and frustrating, as the reader may desire a greater detail regarding the most important figures and their ideas. However, this approach has a clear justification. Rather than viewing key figures as if under a microscope, and thus abstracting them from their intellectual and social environment, Chilcote opts to explore the intellectuals like a social organism, following currents of thought as if they were physical features. Accordingly, the tendencies emerging out of reading groups in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are more important than any individual thinker working therein.

For students of political economy, the fourth chapter is by far the most important. This chapter, on ‘Capitalism and the Bourgeois Revolution’, collects material on the transition to capitalism in Brazil; dependency; development; associated dependent development; sub-imperialism and super-exploitation. Chilcote remains impartial throughout the exposition, faithfully outlining how the debate evolved. The intervention of each intellectual shares a common theme, namely how capitalist relations of production develop in the global periphery. Another common thread identified by Chilcote is that of how to explain the transition to capitalism in the absence of a strong national bourgeoisie. Moreover, multiple thinkers confronted the problem of how Brazil could reconcile apparently contradictory aspects of the ‘traditional’ agricultural sector and the ‘modern’ industrial sector.

The book is also particularly interesting because it shows how the Brazilian Left tried to put their ideas into practice. Marxist influence upon political parties and organizations is outlined in detail, including the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB), the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) which held the presidency after dictatorship ended in 1985, and the now-regnant Workers Party (PT). Moreover, Chilcote picks out Trotsky’s analysis of the relationship between uneven and combined development and permanent revolution as being central to the thinking of Brazilian Marxists. The state-theory and analysis of ideas and intellectuals from the work of Antonio Gramsci is also woven throughout the text.

Overall, Intellectuals and the Search for National Identity in Twentieth Century Brazil acts as a useful and detailed introduction to Brazilian Left thought. It is an excellent reference work for any research student who is just beginning a project on the country. However, the scope of the research does exclude significant figures. As the book focuses on intellectuals who worked largely within Brazil’s borders, the prominent political economist Alfredo Saad-Filho is only referenced in passing. Equally, the Marxist geographer Milton Santos, who worked in exile both in Canada and in France, is omitted the work. The influence of the latter is considerable, particularly on the Landless Workers Movement (MST). Despite this, Chilcote’s contribution understanding Brazil for Anglophone academics is considerable. In the context of the economic and political crises that grip Brazil in 2015, this book gives good reason to believe that the intellectual resources to resolve them rest with Lusophone thinkers within and beyond the nation’s borders.

Philip Roberts
Philip Roberts is a final-year PhD candidate in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney, Australia, supervised by Professor Adam David Morton and Dr Damien Cahill. Phil was previously a fellow of the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ) at the University of Nottingham where he received his doctoral research training. His research is on Brazil and his thesis is entitled "The Landless Workers Movement of Brazil: Class Struggle and Ideological Formation."

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