The ideological weight attached to the two key elements of the topic presented here, Venezuelan positivism and modernity, as well as their intimate relation with Venezuela’s contemporary historical processes tend to influence any serious discussion of the subject. Modernity can be defined—in political terms— through the series of changes which, from the latter half of the eighteenth century on, establish the individual, in the words of the French sociologist Louis Dumont, as “the normative subject of all institutions”: an individualistic conception of the person and a contractual conception of society.1 In contrast with the hierarchical society of the Ancien Régime, the individual, now defined as a free citizen, becomes the reference unit for the entire social body. Political modernity outlines a series of aspirations which, gradually, impose themselves as self-evident principles: democracy, freedom and plurality of thought, individual rights, representation mechanisms expressed through universal suffrage. In the case of Venezuela, it is generally admitted that this sort of political modernity emerged as a corollary of the independence war that ended, from a military point of view, in 1823. However, it only became truly relevant from the middle of the fourth decade of the present century, in the sense suggested by the peremptory remark of the Venezuelan writer and historian Mariano Picón Salas that “the twentieth century began for Venezuela in 1936,” after the death of Juan Vicente Gómez,2 and it was a salient feature of the “new dawn” which began on January 23, 1958, after the downfall of the Marcos Pérez Jiménez regime.3

From this prevailing ideological standpoint, the position assumed by Venezuelan positivism, inspired by the dogmas of order and progress, might have presented valid arguments for the modernization of some of the country’s material structures. But this current of thought remained identified with two undemocratic periods of Venezuelan history: the Antonio Guzmán Blanco autocracy in the latter half of the nineteenth century and, above all, Juan Vicente Gomez’s despotical regime. Guzmán Blanco had decreed the new doctrine’s institutional establishment by creating the chairs of natural history and world history at the Universidad Central in Caracas in 1874. Moreover, most of Venezuela’s leading positivists actively supported Gómez during his 27-year rule, from 1908 until 1935, and achieved high positions in government, in the national legislatures, or in the diplomatic corps. The changes in Venezuela’s political life after Gómez s death thus led to a rejection both of positivism’s ideological propositions and of its ability to deal with the topic of political modernity. A widely accepted critical viewpoint has tended to define Venezuelan positivism as nothing more than a pessimistic, cynical, and reactionary interpretation of Venezuelan reality4: hence, to analyze Venezuelan positivism would be equivalent to analyzing an approach toward antimodernity. That this is not the case is the main argument of the present study.

If the definition and proper qualification of modernity meet with a reasonable degree of consensus, there are still many in Venezuela’s academic circles who question the relevance of and even doubt the existence of a truly “Venezuelan” positivism, since positivism, as a doctrine born and developed in Europe, could only bias any attempt made to analyze Venezuela’s national reality. Within this narrow perspective, Mariano Picón Salas, who had been an outspoken opponent of the Gómez regime, would write, nearly 30 years ago, that one could talk about Venezuelan positivism only insofar as “European philosophical schools, like wines, change somewhat in taste when crossing the Atlantic.”5 In a similar vein, a recent publication firmly stated that “the postulates of this European trend of thought [i.e., positivism] were being generally applied without taking into account [Venezuela’s] immediate peculiarities, and were generally tucked in as if with a shoe horn into an alien shoe tree.… ,”6 I do not intend to trigger a renewed polemic on this somewhat peculiar way of understanding the history of ideas and the intricate mechanisms of their diffusion.7 I will abide by what François Chevalier once wrote, that “if it is certainly true that positivism originated abroad, its widespread success in Latin America, as well as the deep echoes it encountered there together with its own dynamic impetus, do exceed … an occasional incidence and rather seem to reveal a coherent structure of collective mentalities.….”8

We can thus consider, together with the Uruguayan scholar Arturo Ardao, the “assimilation and transformation of positivism in Latin America,”9 and support the thorough investigation carried out on Venezuelan positivism by Arturo Sosa, a young Jesuit priest and distinguished spokesman for the liberation theology movement, whose “initial presumption is that we are truly confronted with cases of original creation, in terms of both political thought and political theory.….”10 From these premises, I will begin my present analysis.

The Introduction of Positivism and Its Historiography

“Positivism” and “positivist” are two neologisms forever linked to the person and teachings of Auguste Comte. Émile Littré in his Dictionnaire de la langue française, published between 1868 and 1870, uses both of these expressions in the contents of the entry on “Positive Philosophy,” which he defines as “a philosophical system derived from the conjunction of positive sciences, whose founder is Auguste Comte; this philosopher particularly uses this expression in opposition to theological and meta-physical philosophy.”11 It is thus clear that in the European context positivism is a philosophical system, which can only be appreciated within the framework of all global systems of thought. It would, therefore, be absurd to try to limit Comtian positivism to the mere statement of the celebrated “Law of the Three Stages.” Like any philosophical doctrine, positivism attempts to outline a definition for knowledge and to establish guidelines for action. There is a Comtian theory of knowledge, applied to a new classification of scientific language, which, in turn, leads to a renewed reflection on the problem of logical thought. In the same way, there exists a Comtian theory of action, which deals with the human order in terms of a social and moral order that leads to a theory of the human soul. Finally, there is a Comtian attempt to achieve a subjective synthesis of knowledge and action, with logic as a method, physics as a doctrine, and morality as the final outcome. Abstraction and analysis thus became purified in order to regenerate human intelligence by subordinating it to feeling. The written formulation of this final apotheosis of Comte’s system remained unfinished, due to his death in 1857.12 In any case, positivism, originally construed as a philosophical system, has usually been discussed, criticized, and analyzed as such from its European and North American perspectives—and this is still basically true today.13

What, then, are the sources of inspiration for what in Venezuela has been called “positivism”? Elías Pino Iturrieta of the Universidad Central de Venezuela, whose polemical writings on positivism during the Gómez regime have renewed debate on the subject, points out that “the initial anecdote is known to all.” On December 8, 1866, Rafael Villavicencio delivered, within the walls of the university, “an academic speech which formally introduced positivist philosophy in Venezuela.”14 A physician by profession, Villavicencio (1838-1920) had developed a keen interest in education and the social sciences. He had been the Venezuelan disciple of the German natural scientist and professor Adolf Ernst, who had settled in Venezuela in 1861 and is generally credited with having brought to that country the teachings of Comte and Darwin. When, in 1874, President Guzmán Blanco decreed the creation of the university chairs in natural history and world history, these were respectively taught, from 1875 on, by Ernst and Villavicencio. Two other landmarks with regard to the diffusion of positivism in Venezuela are then usually mentioned: the creation of the Instituto de Ciencias Sociales (1877-79), presided over by Villavicencio, and the Sociedad de Amigos del Saber (1882-83), which was mainly animated by two of Villavicencio’s disciples, José Gil Fortoul and Lisandro Alvarado.15

With this chronology as his point of departure, in 1956, the Venezuelan scholar Luis Beltrán Guerrero presented a generation-based approach to Venezuela’s leading positivist thinkers: a first generation of “founding fathers” (Ernst, Villavicencio, Vicente Marcano, and Arístides Rojas); a second generation of “direct disciples” or of “followers from outside the academic circles” of Ernst and Villavicencio (Luis Razetti, David Lobo, Guillermo Delgado Palacios, Gil Fortoul, Alejandro Urbaneja, Nicomedes Zuloaga, Lisandro Alvarado, Alfredo Jahn, Manuel Revenga, Luis López Méndez, César Zumeta, and Manuel Vicente Romerogarcía); and a third generation that reached its peak in the first decades of the twentieth century (Laureano Vallenilla Lanz, Pedro Manuel Arcaya, José Ladislao Andara, Elías Toro, Julio César Salas, Samuel Darío Maldonado, Jesús Semprúm, and Diego Carbonell).16 These were all members of an intellectual elite; they knew one another and sometimes worked closely together. Though it is sometimes difficult to draw a line as to areas of specialization, one could roughly divide these Venezuelan positivists into three categories: those who applied positivism in the areas of natural science and medicine (Razetti, Revenga, Jahn, Marcano, Lobo, Toro, Delgado Palacios, and Maldonado); those who were influenced by it in purely literary pursuits (López Méndez, Semprúm, and Romerogarcía); and those who applied it to the study of social sciences (Rojas, Gil Fortoul, Urbaneja, Zuloaga, Alvarado, Zumeta, Vallenilla Lanz, Arcaya, Andara, Salas, and Carbonell). It is this last group that I am primarily concerned with here.

Luis Beltrán Guerrero’s classification has popularized the commonly accepted picture of a three-stage evolution of positivism in Venezuela: origins, expansion, and consolidation. To achieve this picture, two main criteria are considered: the birthdates of the movement’s leading individuals (the first generation including those born before 1850; the second generation, those born between 1850 and 1870; the third generation including those born after 1870) and the publication dates of their major works. However, this last criterion for differentiating one generation from another is misleading in that it confuses the date in which a book is published with the time when it has actually been conceived and written. In this last sense, the dividing line between the so-called “second” and “third” positivist generations is by no means clearly defined. Another problem is the difficulty of ascertaining the actual impact and influence that the founders, Ernst and Villavicencio, had in broadcasting positivist ideas in Venezuela. Elena Plaza very reasonably points out that “it has only been in the past two years that the systematic publication of both authors’ Obras completas has been started.”17 And, as long as these indispensable reference tools are not fully available, any statement made on the subject will undoubtedly fall into the realm of speculation.

By starting out from a previously established (though not verified) relationship between Comte, Villavicencio, Ernst, and the rest, the historiography of Venezuelan positivism has tended to analyze the works of several authors, particularly Gil Fortoul, Arcaya, or Vallenilla Lanz, in terms of their supposed links with the “original” doctrine of European positivist thought. At the same time, of course, the influence of other “venerable founding fathers” such as Herbert Spencer, Charles Darwin, and John Stuart Mill is also noted. An elaborate discussion is then presented to determine whether Vallenilla, Gil Fortoul, or Arcaya were more Comtian, “Spencerian,” or “Darwinian,” or more determinist than evolutionist; and the writings of the Venezuelans are then assessed according to these parameters.18 In my view such a discussion is of relatively limited interest, concluding—as one could readily expect—that the Venezuelan version of positivism does not follow with rigorous consistency the theoretical postulates of the original doctrine. This evidence, in turn, is used as an additional argument for disqualification. It has then been argued further that “positivism” arrived in Venezuela “thirty years behind its time,” when it was no longer taken into account in Europe except by second-rate thinkers, and that the Venezuelan followers of this trend of thought only mixed a little bit of Haeckel-style materialism and second-hand sociology with a substantial amount of low flattery in many of the pages which were paid for and inspired by Juan Vicente Gomez’s dictatorship.”19

Discarding such a superficial—as well as simplistic—view of the facts, a small group of scholars has begun, in recent years, a reevaluation of Venezuelan positivism through a more systematic analysis of the writings of a selected number of authors. Here again, Arcaya, Gil Fortoul, and Vallenilla Lanz stand out as the prime targets for study, but such relatively lesser-known authors as Julio César Salas or Luis Razetti are also discussed.20 Following particularly the methodological guidelines laid out by Quentin Skinner, this new research trend has tried to place each author’s thought, as expressed in his more representative works, within its proper intellectual context through a thorough study of footnote references, thus assessing with much greater accuracy the intellectual background of several of the more distinguished representatives of Venezuelan positivism. The initial results of the research suggest that Venezuelan positivism, as expressed in the writings of the authors studied so far, does not try to adopt or adapt a particular philosophical system but to initiate a process of reflection on Venezuela, based on several instruments of analysis taken from contemporary European writers (who would today be called social scientists) concerned with topics of common interest.

A second implicit conclusion, though not expressed with great clarity in my view, is that discussions thus far on the subject of Venezuelan positivism have erred in perspective, by placing a mistaken emphasis on what could be defined as “chronological causality sequence.” It was not the arrival of Auguste Comte’s Cours de philosophie positive, before or after Rafael Villavicencio’s inaugural speech, that provided Venezuelan positivism with the “dynamic impetus” referred to by Chevalier. It is also far from certain that the diffusion of the new doctrine was primarily the result of the guidelines established by a university chair or by learned societies, all located in Caracas and whose actual influence, no matter how brilliant their individual members may have been, could only be limited. One should consider that almost nine years elapsed between the inaugural speech delivered by Villavicencio in 1866 and the lectures he later gave from his university chair. One could similarly ask what happened after both the Instituto de Ciencias Sociales and the Sociedad de Amigos del Saber ended their activities. How, then, can the chain of evolution implied by Luis Beltrán Guerrero’s generational classification be interpreted?

It is inadequate, therefore, to consider Venezuelan positivism as a seed, pushed from Europe by the famous “trade-winds” mentioned by Henry Thomas Buckle, and germinated under a warm tropical climate. Positivism in Europe was and still is a philosophy. What became known in Venezuela as “positivism” was, above all, a convenient method of analysis, immediately perceived as such by an intellectual elite who adopted it because it helped answer several very specific questions. Who are we? Where are we going? How does one build a state? How can a nation be defined? In order to correct the error of perspective which I mentioned earlier, it is necessary to consider, first of all, the thought processes that are implied in questions such as these and that constitute the actual background of the problem. Then, and only then, does it make sense to analyze the answers, as well as the way in which these answers have been reached.

A Method of Historical Reflection

One of the fields in which the distinctive characteristics of Venezuelan positivist thought can be seen most clearly is that history. Venezuelan positivist writers not only restated their nation’s past, but did so with a truly original analysis, proceeding from an interdisciplinary criterion of totality and not viewing their topic as a mere chronicle of events.

In nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe, scholars commonly believed that the writing of history, as the specific cultural heritage of each individual nation, properly entailed only the reporting of events in an impartial and “objective” manner. The object of heuristic rigor—as proclaimed by Charles Langlois, Charles Seignobos, or Gabriel Monod in France; Leopold Von Ranke or Theodor Mommsen in Germany; or George Trevelyan in England—was to produce a history supposedly “neutral” and “erudite,” since it was based on a thorough investigation of the available documentary sources, but which lacked both a sense of global vision, and, apparently, a social or political commitment. History, viewed as a cleansed science, did not have to refer to “social laws” of little perceived relevance or that could become, in the case of Marxism, a threat to the established order. It has been an often-repeated mistake to bestow the name “positivist” on this historiographical trend, which rather deserves to be qualified, according to Charles Olivier Carbonell, as the “methodical school of history.”21

“Positivist” history found a precursor in Buckle, who, in his History of Civilization in England (1857-61)—despite the candor of some of his theories—had insisted that history must devote itself to the study of the masses and not of exceptional individuals. Fustel de Coulanges in La cité antique (1864), Ernest Renan in his Histoire des origines du christianisme (1863-83), and Hippolyte Taine in Les origines de la France contemporaine (1876-93) all emphasized the study of social forces and of what we would call today “collective mentalities” as the prime evolutionary elements of a given civilization. But it was a forgotten disciple of Auguste Comte, Louis Bourdeau, who finally published, in 1888, what is generally acknowledged as the only known manifesto on “positivist history”: L’histoire et les historiens: Essai critique de l’histoire considérée comme science positive,22 the methodological criteria of which still remain strikingly relevant. History, according to Bourdeau, has a meaning, is all-encompassing, is progressive and rejects the notion of sudden breaking points, must be impersonal and bestow little importance on the actions of individuals, is not a mere narrative of events, is deterministic, and obeys its own laws. Bourdeau, moreover, was among the first to promote the consistent use of statistics for the historical measurement and appreciation of economic phenomena. Yet, with the exception of Buckle (and in his case more for ideological than scientific reasons), none of these authors can be considered as representatives of a European historiographical trend. They founded no school and had no disciples. The individual quality of the writings, not only of Buckle but of Fustel de Coulanges, Benan, or Taine, was certainly acknowledged in their own time; they were listened to as thinkers, but not imitated. And, as far as Bourdeau was concerned, his “manifesto” seems to have fallen into complete oblivion.

But whereas nineteenth-century European bourgeois historiography virtually ignored history as a social science and narrowly enclosed it into a mere “science of facts,” in Venezuela the reaction against the “antiquated concepts” that had been used to justify (in the style of a romantic epic poem) the events of the emancipation wars led to the combining of the scholarly precision and thorough analysis of archival material of the “methodical school” with a global approach to historical phenomena. Gil Fortoul wrote from Bordeaux, where he had been appointed Venezuelan consul, a lengthy review of Bourdeau’s L’histoire et les historiens, which was published in the columns of an influential Caracas daily news-paper, La Opinión Nacional.23 Vallenilla Lanz and Arcaya proved to be keen readers of Taine, Fustel de Coulanges, and Renan, and it is quite possible that the attention they both gave in their works to the study of Venezuela’s colonial institutions was partly derived from their assessment of Paul Lacombe’s De l’histoire considérée comme science (1894), which contended that “institutions are the main object of concern for history-science.”24 Through history, what the Venezuelan positivists sought was “to integrate the elements that [must] necessarily shape nationality,”25 and, in thinking of history as a social phenomenon, to clarify a process of reflection on Venezuelan society.

Originally conceived by Comte as the science of social reality as a whole, sociology, at the end of the nineteenth century, was still a discipline that sought to determine its specific object of study. What was actually a social fact? What was the function of the individual with regard to the social environment? The answers to these questions were expressed by Émile Durkheim in Les règles de la méthode sociologique, first published in 1894: social facts must be treated as things and are characterized by their “constraining exteriority.” These positions have been generally accepted as the foundations of present-day sociology. Moreover, the dominating influence of the Durkheimian school over all later studies has tended to diminish the importance of another contemporary group of thinkers whose research, now relatively ignored, had acquired a relevance worthy of attention. It is not my purpose to carry out a historiographical analysis of European sociology, but I need to mention the important contribution made by the Institut International de Sociologie, founded in Paris by René Worms in 1893. The Institut’s journal, the Revue Internationale de Sociologie, brought together a distinguished group of collaborators—a prime and perhaps unique example, at the time, of interdisciplinary international cooperation.

Under the direction of Worms, the names of Ludwig Gumplowicz, Jacob Novicow, Georg Simmel, Charles Letourneau, Léon Duguit, and Gabriel Tarde appeared in the Revue, together with many others such as Émile Boutmy, Théodule Ribot, Alfred Fouillée, Julius Lippert, Achille Loria, and Thorstein Veblen, whose works, translated when necessary into French, made up the collection of the Bibliothèque sociologique internationale.26 Worms never actually tried to create a “school,” and virtually the only common denominator among the authors of the Revue and Bibliothèque was that they were not Durkheimian. Readers of both publications could thus secure the benefit of an eclectic theoretical perspective, from which they could well conclude that social psychology, economics, and sociology were perfectly legitimate disciplines in their own right and did not lead to any conflict among themselves when used to analyze a given social phenomenon. It followed also that economic, religious, political, legal, or family institutions all possessed a certain degree of autonomy and could exert influence over one another.

My own research clearly indicates that the methodological thinking of Venezuelan positivism was essentially conditioned by the global and un-systematic vision offered by Worms and his group of collaborators. The sources cited by Gil Fortoul, Arcaya, Vallenilla Lanz, Razetti, or Salas include most of the authors of the Revue and of the Bibliothèque, which gives us a more accurate understanding of the reference universe they used.27 This does not mean, of course, that the Venezuelan positivists discarded Durkheim. They merely did not bestow on him the importance which he later came to acquire, and, in some cases, they took issue with the reductionist-oriented objectivity he proclaimed. When Vallenilla Lanz mentioned the concepts of “mechanical solidarity” as opposed to “organic solidarity,”28 it is obvious that he had read La division du travail social, Durkheim’s first major work, originally published in 1893.

It is important to point out here the practical application of this methodological perspective to the study of Venezuelan society, whose evolution could only be explained through an analysis of its own structures, institutions, traditions, and collective psychology. One of the guiding principles for this reflection was that of a “sociological approach” toward society as a whole. In other words, paraphrasing Durkheim, one would start out from the postulate that it is the individual who is born out of society, and not society which emerges from the aggregate of individuals that make it up. There exists, therefore, a historical priority of society over the individual, which, in turn, defines and conditions the institutions that rule the individual. Moreover, to consider “sociologically” a given society necessarily brings forth a reflection on the state and its role as the guiding institution of an evolutionary process: a reencounter with the problem of modernity.

It has generally been forgotten that the emergence of sociology as a scientific discipline brought new alternatives for the analysis of the principles and effective manifestations of political modernity. Placing society before the individual implied a thorough reexamination of the true scope and meaning of individualism and the Rousseau-inspired social contract. At the same time, analyzing history as an evolutionary process implied a restatement of the dialectical binomial of continuity and breaking point. The Ancien Régime social structures, in Europe as well as in Spanish America, did not change just because their elites had adopted a new language or new political principles—and this, in turn, raises the problem of the dichotomy between a given doctrine of thought and its application.

Modernity, as such, promotes the principles of popular sovereignty and democracy, the expression of which, in representative terms, is the nation-state. Then follow the commonly accepted expressions: “representation is what creates the nation” and “the state is the supreme organ of the nation.” But a review of these principles brings forth a series of questions: What is the essence of representation? What is the true nature of the so-called “social contract”? What is the link between representative government and the general will? In other words, what are the organic bases of a given political structure? Sociology argues that the general will is not a mere aggregate of individual wills. Furthermore, from a legal point of view, the “nation” is a fictitious concept, and there is no clear definition as to the nature of the “contract” governing the representation process which has been ratified as the result of an election. Rather than the traditional subjective and idealistic vision of political institutions, an objective perception of these phenomena gradually emerges in sociological thought—one derived from the same social relations that make up a given human community. The modern state, from this standpoint, is not simply the product of the collective will, but is defined through the social functions it must fulfill.29 This organic conception of the state and of the notion of sovereignty that originates in the works of, among others, Georg Jellinek and Léon Duguit,30 leads to the critical comparison of a social organization with its own political institutions; and that, in turn, leads to the elaboration of an organic theory of political processes based on the internal relations present in a given society. There then arises the need to analyze critically the political mechanisms themselves: the vote and the system of representation, and the role played by political parties or ideologies. It becomes necessary, in effect, to reconstruct a “sociological” modernity.

In the specific case of Venezuela, such a new interpretation had to start out from the obvious contradiction between the institutionalized political principles, whose grounding in liberal thought seemed “to nurture itself from self-generated dream-like illusions,”31 and the actual structures of a society whose severance of its colonial ties seemed to have condemned it to a permanent state of disintegrating anarchy. It became necessary not only to reach an accurate diagnosis of the situation, but to set the corrective guidelines that might achieve, by stabilizing the political system itself, a reduction of those contradictory elements. Such a diagnosis and guidelines constitute what Sosa has aptly called the “thought paradigm of Venezuelan positivism.”32 Beyond its particular identification with the Gómez regime, this paradigm, born out of a reflection on Venezuelan history and society at a given moment of their evolution, also offers, through its reinterpretation of modernity, a theoretical model for the analysis of political action.

Themes of Positivist Thought

At the expense of some oversimplification, one could say that the main ideas expressed in the positivist paradigm are summed up in the famous motto “order and progress,” order being the necessary means to achieve the final goal of progress. Restating and commenting on the classification Sosa once made of these various “main ideas,”33 we can consider:

a) Stage-determined processes

This means not only, on the one hand, “the certainty that humanity marches in its history through well-determined stages,” but also, on the other hand, that each stage is “determined,” so to speak, by the objective factors at hand. As long as these factors do not change, it will not be possible to move on to a higher stage in terms of organic complexity.

b) Evolutionism vs. revolution

A given society does not advance by sudden jumps. Positivist evolutionism will not consider a revolution as a breaking point, but as a “moment of acceleration in an evolutionary process” that will remain conditioned by the forces of continuity inherent in any given social body. Neither the storming of the Bastille nor the Declaration of the Rights of Man changed from one day to the next the fundamental aspects of French society. The structures of a given society move within long-term dynamics that help us to understand history as a process.

c) Race

The Venezuelan positivist authors generally dealt with the topic of “race” from a double perspective: first, to disprove the racist theory by denouncing the absurdity of the “pure race” concept and by discarding the explanation of the assumed decadence of past and present civilizations through race mixture; secondly, to define the character of the Venezuelan people as a mestizo society. Nor would it be accurate to see in the proposals these authors made to increase European immigration an echo of the celebrated opposition between “civilization and barbarism”— the one European, the other American—that received classic expression from Domingo Faustino Sarmiento in his Facundo. The racial heterogeneity of the Venezuelan folk could be seen as an element of anarchy, but also of dynamic strength; not all was negative in the “barbarism” that shaped the new crucible of nationality.34 However, beyond the purely biological meaning of the word, the concept of “race” also acquired with these writers a new dimension: that of a “social race,” defined by the processes through which a given group can establish its own idiosyncracy. In the words of Vallenilla Lanz, “Race must mean, in this case—so as not to fall into utter nonsense—psychology, mentality, culture.”35 What was then being sought through immigration was a means to change the course of this idiosyncracy and to domesticate the creative dynamism of barbarism.

d) Education

Together with immigration, this is the other key element that will be necessary in order to achieve a qualitative change in Venezuelan society. But the education discussed here is of the utilitarian type, geared toward technical, “practical and professional” training. “In today’s modern societies, the merchant, industrialist, or worker who can perform well their trades are far more useful than the physician or lawyer who do not have a full knowledge of their professions,”36 once wrote Vallenilla Lanz, paraphrasing Alfred Fouillée and Célestin Bouglé. It thus became an imperative necessity to correct the technical deficiency of higher education,

where one can find the cause for this enormous amount of dropouts who then seek in what we wrongly call here politics the means to make a living which they could not find in the exercise of their profession: a bureaucracy of half-literates without any clearly defined ideas about anything and with confused ideas about everything, script-writing dyspeptics who were not even able to place a foot on [the] first step of scientific culture, where man begins to realize all that he is ignorant of.37

e) Freedom, at last

Under this heading, Sosa analyzes the evolutionary aim of the positivist paradigm toward a “freedom” that will be enjoyed once the disintegrating forces of society have been halted. I should specify that the “freedom” in question is one which will be derived from a new organic disposition of the social body; a freedom that will establish itself not by applying an individualistic principle, but as the product of an “objective reality,” grounded in material progress.

f) The true meaning of political language

Moving beyond the categories used by Sosa, I am focusing here on the key idea of the positivist paradigm, which stems from a critical reappraisal of ideology and political language. In the view of the Venezuelan positivists, concepts such as “sovereignty,” “people,” and “constitutionality” do not define anything, apart from a demagogic mythology: they represent the fruitless transplant of formulas and institutions which, by themselves, do not change a social reality but rather contribute to the promotion of frustrations and anarchy. As “realistic liberals,” the positivists would not deny the benefits of political modernity; they did not claim, at any moment, to be the reactionary champions of an Ancien Régime society. Their status as a social elite placed them in the world of modernity; but their intellectual training bestowed on them an acute consciousness that the ready acceptance of ideal theories can be out of place with the evolutionary movement of a given society. For them, not to acknowledge such a contradiction would be to fall into the anarchic demagogy of “Jacobinism,” which attempts to run a social body through abstract principles.

The question is then to reinterpret modernity, to rediscover the individual through the processes involved in the shaping of a particular society. And the first of these processes is that of history, which can help to define the necessary “tradition,” the landmarks that accompany the evolution of a folk and, at the same time, determine its own political behavior: “Politics can have no other grounding than that of each country’s historical evolution; because ‘simple or complicated, stable or changing, barbarous or civilized, society finds in itself its own reason for being’.”38

Thus, there was a need, in the case of Venezuela, to ascertain the importance and significance of the changes that showed the path toward modernity. To try and explain the independence wars through the mere ideological transplant of political principles was to give way to romantic dogmatisms, in the midst of a “confusion of ideas” that hid the deep content of what turned out to be a major social struggle. The civil war of which Vallenilla Lanz talks in the celebrated first chapter of Cesarismo democrático opposed a “rigorously stratified” society to the invasion of “our Tartars, of our Bedouins who rush into history from the anonymity of the lowlands.”39 Throughout the nineteenth century, the interplay of these opposing forces accompanied the formation of the new state and the emerging consciousness of a new national sovereignty. But the positivists recognized that, beyond history itself, lies the “physical and telluric medium” that shapes customs and creates the specificities of the “social being.” However, it is not enough to merely emphasize, as has usually been done, the deterministic relationship that Venezuelan positivist thought ascribes to the medium as such. It is equally important to note the dialectic condition of this interplay between humans and the telluric forces that surround them, the violence of which lends motion to society’s evolutionary process. Violence—as conceived by Georges Sorel in his renowned treatise40—becomes the effective expression of the changes that can successfully alter the structures of the social body. For the positivists, therefore, it was necessary to direct attention to the “practical nature” of these changes, so as to be able to assess Venezuela’s true “organic constitution.”

If the individual is a product of society, his or her role as the agent of an evolutionary process is also that of a collective actor. The “people,” the “popular masses” are vaguely defined concepts, to be sure, but they must be taken into account at the time of diagnosis. Of course, for Venezuelan positivist thought, the motivating elements for mass action do not arise from mere theoretical principles, but rather stem from the actual interplay of the social forces themselves. These forces can be curbed by the action of the elites, as long as the latter, as collective actors, are conscious of the process they are unleashing and have the necessary means to hold in check the anarchic tendencies generated by any change in social structures. Yet, this does not always happen, and nineteenth-century Venezuela’s political evolution, with its almost unending chain of civil wars, was a good case in point. A given society, nevertheless, can also generate its own elements of cohesiveness: the caudillo, as a natural result of disintegrating anarchy, can be seen as a final recourse in order to achieve a stability grounded in the “unconscious subduing” of the majority. This “necessary gendarme,” materialized in the Venezuelan case by Gómez, can thus become the “representative and regulator of popular sovereignty”: modernity’s demiurge.

The Political Perspective of Venezuelan Positivism

One of positivism’s basic principles is that of discarding all a priori formulations and deriving any certainty from the empirical verification of facts. Thus, in the political field, no system can be construed that is not the product of a community’s organic evolution. To think of modernity in positivist terms implies, therefore, a contrary process from that of an idealistic rationalism: it is not theory which leads to praxis, but praxis which effectively generates its own theory. The political model of positivism starts out from a general questioning of concepts and finds in sociology a global attempt toward their reinterpretation.

The political thought of Venezuelan positivists has usually been placed within the particular context of Venezuelan history, due to the privileged relationship established with the Guzmán Blanco, and, above all, the Gómez regimes; but it needs to be emphasized that their critical analysis projected itself far beyond a purely local setting. They did not use criteria to reach a diagnosis on their country’s situation that were different from those they would have used to study the cases of France, the United States, Great Britain, or Spain. A sociological interpretation varies only in its object of study, not in its method; what was being attempted was to “sociologize” politics as a whole.

It therefore became necessary to ascertain the true scope of the political ideas and concepts that had appeared throughout the nineteenth century, both in Europe and in America. A historical perspective could show the obvious dephasing between theory and facts, while the positivist conception of history denied the very existence of sudden breaking points and would rather speak of a continuity tuned to the “natural” evolution of society. Traditional concepts of modernity will focus on the individual in order to build a political system; positivist modernity will focus attention on the social body, but a social body previously freed by history from all mythological speculations. Beyond the abstract “individual” will appear the real actor of a given process. Hence, the mechanisms of a system in themselves—universal suffrage, political parties, a constitution—are not what matters, but the degree of cohesion between these mechanisms and the structures of the social body they claim to rule. Only in such a way can anarchy, as well as democratic fiction, be avoided.

In applying this diagnosis to the case of Venezuela, positivist thought called for a willful type of solution: a project of authority capable of imposing order so as to overcome the state of chaos, but one that might also lead to modernity as a result. The state was thus defined as the expression of national rather than popular sovereignty—which altogether solved the problem of representation.

In practical terms, it is obvious that Venezuelan positivism upheld an elitist political project: a “tutelage of peoples,” similar to the one suggested by Joaquín Costa for Spain at the turn of the century or by Charles Maurras’s Action Française for France during the 1920s and ’30s. It is fairly easy to fall, by analogy, into the temptation of equating this renewed version of “enlightened despotism” with a precursory form of fascism. I believe, however, that this would be a misleading extrapolation. The political model of Venezuelan positivism never sought to promote the establishment of a totalitarian regime but to respond to the specific problems of a historical moment. Its condemnation of “Jacobinism” or of “socialism” was not due to the rejection of a particular theoretical doctrine, but to the demagogic excesses that had resulted from the disjunction between ideological principles, “intimately related to theology and peripatetic philosophy,”41 and the slow evolution of human societies, “achieved almost always against the wills of those whom history points out as reformers and creators.”42 Rather than creating or reforming, there was a need to promote long-term changes in harmony with the evolutionary process of a given society, so as to change mentalities instead of institutions.

On the other hand, the sociological reductionism of Venezuelan positivism undoubtedly prevented it from appropriately evaluating the inherent strength of ideology as a driving force in society. And, to date, it is precisely this same ideological power that has infused with such passion the debate over the contribution of this particular brand of positivism to political modernity.43 In the years after the death of Gómez and, later still, after 1958, the actions of the so-called “modern political parties,” legitimated by direct universal suffrage, established new sociability mechanisms in Venezuelan society. But the products of these moments of ideological intensity remain subject to pendular sways if they are not able to maintain an adequate link with the social forces they claim to represent. When this occurs, as has happened in Venezuela in recent years, new doubts arise that usually lead to a reevaluation of the true meaning of the principles proclaimed. The alternative of rethinking modernity from a sociological point of view then returns to the forefront, within the framework of the new circumstances which, in turn, are the result of the evolutionary dynamics of a nation—in this case, of “a nation called Venezuela.”44


François-Xavier Guerra, “América Latina y la modernidad” (paper presented in the postgraduate lecture series of the Universidad Santa María of Caracas, June 1987), 1.


Mariano Picón Salas’s statement embodied the ideology that soon prevailed in Venezuela. Most of the post-1936 political leaders had been exiled or imprisoned during the Gómez years, particularly Rómulo Betancourt, the founder of Acción Democrática, the main political party in Venezuelan life since its foundation in 1941.


The overthrow of the Pérez Jiménez military regime was the landmark for the consolidation of the present political status quo.


Among the representative works of this critical trend are Augusto Mijares, Interpretación pesimista de la sociología hispanoamericana (Madrid, 1952); Elías Pino Iturrieta, Positivismo y gomecismo (Caracas, 1978); Germán Carrera Damas, ed., El concepto de la historia en Laureano Vallenilla Lanz (Caracas, 1966).


Picón Salas, “Venezuela: Algunas gentes y libros,” in Venezuela independiente 1810-1960 (Caracas, 1962), 13.


Pino Iturrieta, “Ideas sobre un pueblo inepto: La justificación del gomecismo,” in Juan Vicente Gómez y su época (Caracas, 1988), 57.


From May to July 1985, in the columns of the Caracas daily El Nacional, Pino Iturrieta and I were involved in a heated and unresolved debate over these issues.


François Chevalier, “Le positivisme scientifique comme modèle d’intégration culturelle en Amérique Latine, XIXème-XXème siècles,” in Unité et diversité de l’Amérique Latine, 2 vols. (Bordeaux, 1983), II, 72.


Arturo Ardao, Estudios latinoamericanos de historia de las ideas (Caracas, 1978), 42-43.


Arturo Sosa Abascal, Ensayos sobre el pensamiento político del positivismo venezolano (Caracas, 1985), 5.


Quoted by Angèle Kremer-Marietti, Le positivisme (Paris, 1987), 5.


I am referring to the Synthèse subjective, originally conceived by Comte as a four-volume work, of which only the first volume, Système de logique positive, was actually published in Nov. 1856.


See, e.g., Leszek Kolakowski, La philosophie positiviste (Paris, 1976), and Kremer-Marietti, Auguste Comte et la théorie sociale du positivisme (Paris, 1970) and Le concept de science positive: Ses tenants et ses aboutissants dans les structures anthropologiques du positivisme (Paris, 1983).


Pino Iturrieta, “Ideas,” 159.


For further reference, see Julio Yépez,“Origine et diffusion du positivisme intellectuel et politique au Vénézuela (1866-1890)” (Thèse de doctorat de 3ème cycle, Université de Paris I, 1985) and Gregorio Antonio Castro, Sociólogos y sociología en Venezuela (Caracas, 1988).


Luis Beltrán Guerrero, Introducción al positivismo venezolano (Caracas, 1956).


Elena Plaza, “Sobre las bases filosóficas del positivismo social venezolano” (paper presented at the 46th International Congress of Americanists, Amsterdam, July 1988), 10.


See, e.g., Alicia de Nuño, Ideas sociales del positivismo en Venezuela (Caracas, 1969); Marisa Kohn de Becker, Tendencias positivistas en Venezuela (Caracas, 1970); José Ramón Luna, El positivismo en la historia del pensamiento venezolano (Caracas, 1971).


Picón Salas, “Venezuela: Algunas gentes,” 14.


See, e.g., Plaza, José Gil Fortoul. Los nuevos caminos de la razón: La historia como ciencia, 1861-1943 (Caracas, 1983); Sosa Abascal, Ensayos; Susana Strozzi, Julio C. Salas: Biografía y política en el positivismo venezolano (Caracas, 1986).


For further discussion, see Charles Olivier Carbonell, La mutation idéologique des historiens français, 1865-1885 (Toulouse, 1976), chap. 4, passim and “L’histoire dite ‘positiviste’ en France,” Romantisme, 21—22 (1978), 173-186.


For a general discussion of Bourdeau’s ideas, see Carbonell, La mutation, 109-135.


Plaza, José Gil Fortoul, 83.


Paul Lacombe , De l’histoire considérée comme science (Paris,1894),12-13


Laureano Vallenilla Lanz Obras completas, 2 vols .(Caracas, 1983-84), II, 118


For further reference, see Terry N. Clark, “Empirical Social Research in France” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1965).


Plaza, José Gil Fortoul, 131-137; Sosa, Ensayos, 263-265; Strozzi, Julio C. Salas, 90-93.


Vallenilla Lanz, Obras, I, 113-114.


Points discussed at length in Pierre Rosanvallon’s seminar at l’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales entitled “Les théories du lien social à la fin du 19ème siècle” (Paris, Apr.-May 1988).


See, e.g., Léon Duguit, “Fonctions de l’état moderne,” Revue Internationale de Sociologie, 2:3 (Mar. 1894) and Études de droit public, 3 vols. (Paris, 1903), III, passim.


Carrera Damas, “Consideraciones sobre los límites históricos del liberalismo en Venezuela,” Paideia, 2:2 (Jan.-Mar. 1959), 7.


Sosa, Ensauos, 7.


Ibid., 10-13.


I fully agree here with the point raised by Nelson Osorio T. in a paper on Rómulo Gallegos presented at a symposium organized by the Centro de Estudios Latinoamericanos Rómulo Gallegos (Caracas, June 1985).


Vallenilla Lanz, Críticas de sinceridad y exactitud (Caracas, 1921), 319-320.


Vallenilla Lanz, “Modernización de la enseñanza,” El Nuevo Diario (Caracas), May 2, 1913, p. 1.




Vallenilla Lanz, Obras, II, 118.


Manuel Caballero, “Filosofía de la historia,” in El concepto, 68.


Georges Sorel, Réflexions sur la violence (Paris, 1907).


Vallenilla Lanz, “Los peligros del socialismo,” El Cojo Ilustrado, 20:472 (Aug. 15, 1912), 460. In this respect, it is pertinent to note the historiographical debate as to whether the Venezuelan positivist thinkers were familiar with European Marxist writings. From the research completed so far, I believe that they had studied Marxism, albeit through secondary source material. But they did not share the political conclusions derived from historical materialism.


Ibid., 458.


This is one of the points studied by Nikolaus Werz in his paper “Entwicklung und Herrschaft in den Schriften der venezolanischen Positivisten,” presented at a symposium on Venezuela organized by the University of Erlangen/Nuremberg in Nov. 1986.


I purposely refer here to the title used by Carrera Damas in one of his works (Una nación llamada Venezuela [Caracas, 1980]), where he analyzes modernity in terms of Venezuelan society’s “mental evolution.” The concluding lines of this paper were written before the bloody events in Venezuela during the week of Feb. 27, 1989. These events clearly demonstrated the lack of representativeness of the country’s present political structures and have led to a renewed assessment of the instruments of modernity.

Author notes


The ideas for this paper originated from a series of seminars on Venezuelan positivism taught by the author during a visiting professorship at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris and at the Maison des Pays Ibériques in Bordeaux in Apr.-June 1988. The original Spanish version was presented at the VI Congreso Nacional de Historia, Caracas, Oct. 1988.