The 2016 coup represented the overcoming of a semi-colonial situation in Brazil and its replacement by a "globalized neo-colonial" order. In this process, the national ruling classes have renounced any idea of autonomy or any national project and handed over the political direction of the country to big business and imperialism. We are witnessing a general breakdown of the nation, where the working classes and the population in general are forced into wage slavery. This is one of the central theses of the new book by historian Mario Maestri, "Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Brazil: 1530-2018". (Coyoacan Collection), which will be launched on April 5th, at the Clube de Cultura, in Porto Alegre.
Mário Maestri: "We are witnessing a breakdown of our national institutions". (Photo: Guilherme Santos/Sul21)
In an interview with Sul21 , Maestri defines his new book as a life project, perhaps the theoretical synthesis of his life as a historian and activist. One of the initial inspirations of the work was the perception of a profound fragility of thought and reflection on Brazil, "especially from our left, which pretended to be Marxist". "This has deep roots that I try to point out and investigate in this work. During all my years as an activist, I have always tried to draw the attention of my companions to this. We knew everything about the Cuban revolution, about the Chinese revolution or the Russian revolution, but we knew nothing about Brazil. If you’d asked a well-trained activist what the Regency[1831-1840] was, he wouldn't have had very much to say," he remarks.
The main thread of Maestri’s analysis is the idea of national sovereignty. Throughout this analysis, he seeks to pinpoint the contradictions and social impacts that we have experienced throughout Brazil’s history (and still do). Slavery, he maintains, is the structure on which Brazilian society was formed and consolidated, with repercussions still felt today. "Until 1822, we were basically a colonial country. Then, we became a semi-colonial country, with political independence, but without economic independence". Mario Maestri maintains that, after some attempts at a national project with Getúlio Vargas and some sketchy national-developmentalist policies in the following decades, having given up any pretence of economic independence, Brazil found itself in a position where it also had to renounce its own political independence.
"This might be the theoretical synthesis of my life". (Photo: Guilherme Santos/Sul21)
Sul21: The title of your new book, "Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Brazil (1530-2018)", seems to point to an ambitious project. What is the genesis of this work and what interpretation does it intend to present of almost five centuries of Brazilian history?
Mário Maestri: It is a life project. Perhaps it is the theoretical synthesis of my life. I am a product of the years of the dictatorship. I was little more than a teenager when the military regime was established in Brazil. I started my academic life studying Engineering. But during the Engineering classes I kept reading about history. Being in love with History, I ended up changing courses. I joined the fight against the dictatorship here in Porto Alegre, after I had already enrolled for a History course at the UFRGS (Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul). I was arrested for writing graffiti on a wall. I even got to be judged at the Palacete Alto da Bronze. They wanted to sentence me to three years in prison for drawing graffiti on a wall. I ended up being acquitted for lack of evidence.
Sul21: Do you remember the contents of the graffiti?
Mário Maestri: We graffitied two things. One was " Rockfeller go home!". The other demanded the nationalization of the PUC [Pontifícia Universidade Católica]. The "nationalization of the PUC" affair was not considered a crime, but the one about Rockfeller was. Since they didn't know who had graffitied what, I was sent away. When the situation started turning sour, I took refuge in Chile, where I pursued my studies. I actively participated in the Chilean revolution. It was a privilege, something that deeply marked my life. I spent three years in Allende's Chile. I wanted to stay there, but then Pinochet’s coup occurred. I first joined the resistance to the coup, but I ended up seeking refuge in the Mexican embassy. On that occasion they didn't allow us to stay in Mexico. My partner and I then managed to obtain a passport to go to Yugoslavia. When we landed in Belgium, we got off the plane and asked for asylum. That’s where I completed my academic studies in History.
I returned to Brazil towards the end of the dictatorship. I had then become a member of Convergência Socialista (Socialist Convergence, a Trotskyist organisation). In this context, I began reflecting on the formation of Brazilian society. I remember feeling from the first moment how weak our thinking and reflection on Brazil were, especially on the part of our left-wing organisations, which purported to be Marxist. This has deep roots, which I try to point out and investigate in this work. During all my time as an activist, I have always tried to highlight this and draw the attention of my comrades to it. We knew everything about the Cuban revolution, the Chinese revolution or the Russian revolution, but we knew nothing about Brazil. If you had asked a well-trained activist what the Regency [1831-1840] was, he wouldn't have been able to say much.
"Slavery is the structure on which Brazil was built. (Credit: Guilherme Santos/Sul21)
You don’t necessarily have to know about it. The point is that there are elements in the formation of our society that determine certain practices even today. These elements define us. We are a federation of States that have unified in spite of some profound contradictions that exist to this day. These have grown deeper and make themseves felt every day. I have long worked, mainly as a historian of slavery, not investigating so much the ethnic divide as the class divide.
Slavery is the structure on which Brazil was built. In countries like France and Italy, capitalism has its roots in feudalism, in the peasantry. Our roots are in slavery. It is a completely different construction. This has been almost completely disregarded. The country’s left, broadly speaking, has no clue about the history of Brazil before 1930, when the domestic sectors of capitalism and the very idea of the nation state first began to take shape. Until then, Brazil was a federation. We were inhabitants of Rio Grande do Sul, Rio de Janeiro, Pará, Pernambuco, Minas Gerais, etc., but we were not really Brazilians.
My concern was always to move towards a more structured reflection. I've been politically active for a little more than half a century, and I've been piecing this book together all along. I have expounded some of the reflections it contains on several occasions, many of them in training courses for the MST [Landless Workers’ Movement] around the turn of the millennium, for example. Others have been used as basic material for the graduate courses I have given over the last five or six years.
Sul21: What is the main theme of this reflection on the formation of Brazilian society?
Mário Maestri: I tried to structure my thesis around a central axis: the problem of national autonomy. I didn’t want to present a nationalist view of our historical development. Through the theme of national autonomy, I have tried to pinpoint the social contradictions which affect us, and how they impact us. Until 1822, we were basically a colony. Then we became a semi-colonial country, with political but no economic independence. The Republic  itself did not fundamentally change this reality, in spite of the abolitionist movement. The semi-colonial structure remained in place. The first attempt to break away from this semi-colonial structure took place during the Getulist period of industrialization. It was a move away from this semi-colonial situation and towards national autonomy, under the aegis and the thumb of our national bourgeoisie.
This does not mean that this process resulted in the emancipation of the oppressed classes, as some have suggested. But it meant a step towards national autonomy and the strengthening of the industrialist classes themselves, a process that would leave its mark on the following period extending until 1964. What took place was a struggle between so-called national-developmentalism, aimed at the domestic market and supported by domestic capital, and the imperialist sectors who were in favour of the externalisation of the economy and exports. That was an extremely important moment. My book discusses the reasons why the working class could not achieve its autonomy in the process, namely because of its dependence on populism and the class-collaborationist politics of the PCB.
These elements are not the main causes of what happened, but they made it difficult for the workers to assume the rôle of an alternative, at a time when the Brazilian ruling classes were renouncing any plan to champion the cause of national sovereignty, even within the framework of an autonomous bourgeois revolution.
Sul21: They have abandoned any idea of a national project…
Mário Maestri: Exactly. It all went down the drain. The  coup d’état was yet another of several failed attempts at imposing a liberal policy, which occurred after Getulio's suicide . This [liberal] approach was initially successful with Castelo Branco, but in 1967 there was a coup within the coup. Then we returned to a national-developmentalism, this time no longer focused on the internal market, and which allowed the workers to be exploited to the core. From then on, we had a developmental dictatorship, which we did not understand at the time. Not only did we not understand it, but we did not even feel concerned. But this process failed from an economic point of view. And when it failed, the idea of national sovereignty was totally abandoned.
The process of internationalisation and denationalisation of the economy grew momentum in the country. Here in Rio Grande do Sul, it was terrible. For example, we had a small agricultural equipment industry that was sold off lock, stock and barrel, or absorbed by international capital.
Sul21: What period does your analysis cover ?
Mário Maestri: The period until 2018. Imperialism, the great hegemonic capital, creates the conditions for the destruction of any trace of autonomy of the nation state. It is no longer a semi-colonial régime. I define it as a globalised colonial régime in which the national ruling classes no longer even have political sovereignty. Their sovereignty has fallen apart. This process is not only taking place here in Brazil, but also in countries like Greece and Italy. In Italy, the government no longer has the right to define its own budget. It is the European Central Bank that defines Italy’s budget. We in Brazil are perhaps living a more violent form of the same process.
We are witnessing the breaking up of national institutions. This manifests itself in the media, which is completely internationalized, in the educational institutions, in the country's finances over which we no longer have any control, and in the STF [Supremo Tribunal Federal] itself. Even though this body is already under control, we are going to witness an assault upon it in the next period, as occurred before in Colombia. And the same goes for Parliament, which no longer reacts as a national body. It has been carved up to suit the interests of lobbies which are little concerned with national issues.
Sul21: And what is the position of the military in this process of abandoning any claim to a national project?
Mário Maestri: The military who carried out the coup within the coup, in 1967, were expressing the views of the São Paulo sector of capital and reacting against Castelo Branco, who was the front man of the Americans and a proponent of an opening of the national market. What the capitalists of São Paulo wanted was national-developmentalism coupled with ferocious exploitation of the workers. Over the years, this sector of Brazilian capital was eventually battered and destroyed. One of the key features of this process was the destruction of Brazilian monopoly capital, with hardly any noticeable resistance. The United States destroyed Iraq to get their oil. This was not necessary here. The big contractors that began to emerge in 1930, during the period of development under Getulio Vargas and later during Juscelino Kubitschek’s mandate, grew bigger on the international market, and began to upset the USAmerican hegemonic capital. And here is what happened: they were dismantled and destroyed without a fight. The same is happening with Banco do Brasil and Petrobras. The purchase of Embraer by Boeing is another example.
“Some sectors of the capital are frightened. Imagine what it means to cut soybean exports to China”. (Credit: Guilherme Santos/Sul21)
Brazilian monopoly capital has been destroyed. Our industry is on its way to becoming underdeveloped. This destructive process is necessary for US imperialism, which is fighting a battle to the death against Chinese imperialism. There is no place in the world for two hegemonic imperialisms. In order to defeat China, the United States will have to eliminate Russia and cordon China off. In Brazil, what we are witnessing now are a few readjustments.
Some sectors of capital are frightened. Imagine what it means to cut soybean exports to China. Soybean producers, practically all extreme right-wingers, are beginning to be aware of reality. A certain reaction is beginning to manifest itself, but it is not a national reaction. Those interests that are being affected, are private interests. I define this period that we are living in as a globalized neo-colonial order.
Sul21: Faced with this scenario, in your evaluation, what prospect is there of a resistance taking shape to this process of destruction of any idea of national autonomy?
Mário Maestri: We no longer have a national economy, but I think we still have some respect for our great national open spaces. The defence of these open spaces can only be taken up by the wage earners and the organized labour. The paradox is that Brazil has the space, the wealth and the technology to resist this neo-colonial globalization autonomously. Russia, which is in some respects similar to Brazil, is doing it. The ideal would be an international coordination aimed at strengthening this resistance, starting with Latin America. Chávez experimented some proposals of that order, such as that of a Latin American bank. The only way forward is for the working class to take up the torch and revive this coordination. The Brazilian ruling classes are no longer able to defend a project of national autonomy.
Revolução e Contra-Revolução no Brasil (1530-2018)
Editora FCM, Porto Alegre/RS, 2019
Versão impressa R$ 46,82
Versão ebook R$ 13,99