Despite poor editing and other weaknesses, this book is required reading for anyone interested in the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB), because no other single volume examines so many facets of the subject.
The narrative appears in an 80-page chronology (1848-1972) and in parts of the analytical chapters. For the pre-1945 period it is somewhat weak, not being without myth-like qualities that spring from unreliable sources, such as those that have erroneously turned PCB Secretary General Antônio Maciel Bomfim into a police agent.
Coverage of the Dutra years is better but does not allow a full understanding, because the author fails to mention certain key declarations by the PCB and the USSR that provoked and sometimes insulted the Brazilian government. Among the former was Senator Luís Carlos Prestes’s pronouncement that if Brazil accompanied any imperialist nation in declaring war against the USSR, the PCB would take up arms to overthrow the Brazilian government. This statement, and others also appearing in the PCB’s Tribuna Popular in March 1946, hardly confirm Chilcote’s remarks about the PCB’s early “reluctance to manifest a hard-line Cold War position in the USSR’s favor” (p. 201). In contrast to this part of the story, Chilcote shows much strength in handling the numerous leftist movements that occurred since he began observing Brazilian affairs in 1958.
The useful analytical chapters consider the Party’s organization, as well as its posture within the local, national, and international settings. In these discussions, the Party’s dilemmas are brought out: Prestes is described as having possessed helpful charisma, but also ambition that “undermined party unity” (p. 139); the USSR, we learn, provided helpful funds and harmful strategy; a non-radical pose, the author says, helped the PCB find mass support and a place in the mainstream of politics, but eroded the Party’s vanguard role in clarifying the vital issues of Brazilian society.
Chilcote furnishes excellent analyses of the backgrounds of PCB leaders, basing his findings largely on biographies of PCB members elected in 1945 to the Brazilian constitutional assembly and on information given in police investigations made public in Recife (1958) and São Paulo (1964). He reveals, among many things, that about half of the leaders belonged to the “working class” or “lower class” (pp. 127, 181, 191). No doubt the placing of leaders, attitudes, etc., into slots in tables was not always easy, but the results help to familiarize us with the PCB. In tabulating changes in the influence, militancy, and toleration of the Party (Table 5.1), use of the eight-period historical division, based on events in the USSR, might have been preferred over the five-period division, developed from the PCB’s history, because the latter’s Fourth Phase covers 1945-1956, during which the PCB reversed its position so drastically that useful one-to two-word descriptions, needed for the table, are hard to find.
The book is filled with observations that invite agreement or else questioning. It is difficult to challenge Chilcote’s “proposition that an inner core tends to develop around the top leader” (p. 125). And it seems reasonable to accept the spirit of the author’s suggestion that “the thread of popular resistance and rebellion running through the history of the Northeast, and especially in Pernambuco, may have motivated Communist leaders to plan their 1935 revolt to start in that section” (p. 186). Turning to the 1950s and 1960s, however, we cannot forget the PCB’s opinion that Pernambuco was the least suitable state for revolt, nor a tabulation assembled by the PCB and reproduced in the Cruzada Brasileira Anticomunista entry for 1961 listed in Chilcote’s bibliography. That tabulation, distributing the Party’s cells, committees, and 44,223 members among 34 geographical regions, shows Pernambuco with relatively few Communists per capita. (Top memberships: São Paulo City area, 12,105; Guanabara, 5,936; North Paraná, 3,600; Rio Grande do Sul, 3,580; Pernambuco, 1,706.) Use of that table, together with literacy, urban-rural, and other data, would have enhanced Chilcote’s analysis.
Chilcote’s final conclusion is that whenever the Party became strong “a policy of caution and timidity” set in (p. 221). However, the Party was hardly timid in 1935, and Senator Prestes was not cautious in March 1946. And of the third occasion when the Party felt strong, during the last days of Goulart, it “radicalized itself,” according to earlier words of the author (p. 219).
Today the PCB is not radical enough for Chilcote. It has criticized terrorism and recommended a broad anti-dictatorial front that would include the national bourgeoisie, leading Chilcote to observe that the Party’s “conservative response to events placed it out of touch with Brazilian reality” and represented “blind adherence to the Soviet Union” (p. 174). The reader will have to decide whether or not the realist was Prestes, who favored no Party break with the USSR, and who stated that PCB terrorism would neither help the Party nor liberate the people. Prestes believed that the right path for the Party, following the setback of 1964, was patiently to renew the work of propaganda among the masses.