The reader familiar with Orlando Fals Borda’s central role in the building of a program of sociology at the National University in Bogotá, his earlier important works in the field of community studies and rural sociology, and his uncommon sensitivity to the importance of historical sociology cannot but be disappointed with this work. The brilliance which he showed in earlier historical and sociological studies, particularly in Peasant Society in the Colombian Andes and “Indian Congregations in the New Kingdom of Granada” (Americas, 1957), is here submerged in half-digested sociological concepts and a peculiar variation on the Marxian dialectic. One cannot fault Fals Borda for seeking patterns of change in Colombia history, but his theory of subversion distorts reality rather than helping to understand it.
The best example of distortion is his treatment of the Reforms of 1850. He holds that the Radical Liberals “subverted” the old order in the years between 1847 and 1854, but were subsequently co-opted and acted to re-establish a blend of the seignorial and bourgeois orders in the years thereafter. However, he fails to explain either the subversive nature of the Radical Liberals or the reasons for their subsequent co-optation. This failure results from his desire to accord to them a historical role very different from that which they actually played. In fact, the Radical Liberals were functionally equivalent to the merchant class, which sought not to overthrow the seignorial order, but rather to infiltrate it. That is, they sought high social status, political power, and personal wealth, characteristics which made them less subverters than arrivistes.
Fals Borda’s purpose is clear—by establishing a dialectic in Colombia’s past he seeks to provide the historical basis for predicting revolutionary change now and in the future. If one observes more carefully the porosity of Colombia’s elite and its ability to recruit middle-class dissidents without causing social change, one must take a pessimistic view of the potential for revolution in Colombia today. The author here ransacks the past to find a few bits of evidence for subversive change while ignoring other social processes. Perhaps therein lies the failure of this book, written by an otherwise perceptive sociologist and historian. (The Spanish-language edition of this book was reviewed in HAHR, November 1968, pp. 724-725.)