In this work Werneck Sodré continues his survey of Brazilian institutions. Here he offers us a standard Marxist interpretation of Brazilian economic history, using the gradual evolution of the Brazilian bourgeoisie as his frame of reference. His early chapters, covering the Colonial Period, show how first slavery and later latifundia feudalism and Portuguese metropolitan restrictions compromised the early growth of artisan work and urban shop activities. With capitalism thus checked there was no significant growth of a bourgeois class in Brazil until well into the nineteenth century; even then the growth was incomplete.
Sodré characterizes the economic history of nineteenth-century Brazil in orthodox Marxist fashion, namely, an imperialistic alliance between the progressive industrial bourgeoisie of England (promoting their manufactured exports) and the feudal landowning class of Brazil (promoting their primary exports). This alliance, based on free trade and extensive foreign investments is held responsible for retarding the growth of local industry and a strong industrial bourgeoisie, which the author maintains, are necessary for any viable autonomous national development. Sodré feels that only during two short eras (the brief protectionist periods in the 1850s and early 1890s) was there any significant local entrepreneurial initiative. In each ease, these attempts at local entrepreneurial activity soon ended, as the country returned to free-trade policies and the promotion of foreign investment.
Sodré completes his work by studying the emerging influence of the local industrial bourgeoisie in the twentieth century. This influence grew rapidly through the First World War, declined in the twenties, and surged forward again in the thirties. From the forties to the present this bourgeoisie has engaged in active power politics to counter what Sodré refers to as the ever-present “imperialistic” influence of foreign investment, foreign diplomatic pressure, and local “feudal” interests. Although he feels that in the present era the bourgeoisie has achieved a limited position of power and influence, he maintains that its historical role of constructive change has been distorted by its late arrival in Brazil. Because of this, serious compromises were made to feudal landed interests and foreign capital, and its progressiveness was jeopardized by a hostile attitude toward the working classes. In the author’s opinion, this bourgeois industrial class has been more strongly supported by semi-authoritarian nationalists promoting strong and centralized state capitalism (Vargas, Goulart) than by liberal constitutionalist democrats (Dutra, Kubitschek, and Quadros). These latter have favored more limited state action and have promoted policies more favorable to foreign capital.
In this work primary data and original scholarship are limited, for the author has concentrated on secondary sources. While a Marxist view is certainly not inappropriate in handling certain features of Latin American and Brazilian development, Sodré has a tendency to overstate his case, and he occasionally lapses into Marxist cliches. It is difficult to interpret Brazilian political history almost exclusively in terms of economic motives and international economic policies, as he tends to do. Even more questionable is his constant lament that Brazil was not permitted a chance to industrialize in the nineteenth century because of the unholy imperialist alliance. One may well ask whether Brazil could have been successful in any attempt to industrialize behind a protective tariff, given the context of the times. Historical evidence has shown that nineteenth-century industrialization was a most difficult task even when the state fully supported such a policy for reasons of national security and rivalry. It is highly doubtful that Brazil, isolated from European power politics and underdeveloped in resources, public administration, and “modern” statecraft, could ever have launched an integrated national movement toward self-sustaining industrial growth. For this reason, her options were undoubtedly limited until well into the twentieth century.
Sodré also spends much time discussing the political and economic consequences of Brazil’s chronically heavy external debt. This discussion might have been more convincing if he had given some indication of how these foreign loans and investments were used, so as to compile a more complete benefit-cost profile of Brazil’s foreign debt. The same could also be said about his rather one-sided and unsophisticated review of the role of foreign capital in Brazilian economic growth.
In summary, Sodré has written an interesting and at times provocative analysis of Brazilian economic growth. While his views are frequently overstated and incomplete, he does offer us some sharp insights into the political economy of Brazil that merit attention and study by future historians.