Fernando Henrique Cardoso, President of Brazil, is the most distinguished Marxist scholar to lead a nation since the death of V. I. Lenin. As a young instructor Cardoso belonged to a group that carefully dissected all three volumes of Das Kapital and many other Marxist classics. Cardoso's voluminous academic writings include references not only to Marx, but also to such luminaries of historical materialism as Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, Magdoff, Baran, Sweezy, Poulantzas, and Althusser. Academically, Cardoso is best known for his critique of the exploitation of third-world nations by multinational capitalism.
Since his election to the presidency in 1994, however, Cardoso has been a vigorous advocate of free markets and privatization. He travels the globe wooing tycoons in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese, and has been repaid with massive infusions of corporate capital. He's also a successful macroeconomic strategist who, as finance minister, ended a stubborn hyperinflation, which had defeated several previous governments.
Cardoso's policies would be easy to understand if Cardoso had traded in his worn edition of Das Kapital for the collected works of Milton Friedman. And, indeed, Cardoso did publish his break with Marxist economic theory as long ago as 1969, when he was in exile in France because of his opposition to the military coup d'état of 1964. But he is nevertheless proud of having mastered the Marxist opus a decade before Althusser made reading Marx fashionable, and he readily acknowledges the Marxist element which persists in his thinking. He unabashedly stands by everything he ever wrote and insists that, given the same circumstances, he would write it all the same way again. His critics — on both sides of the political spectrum — are troubled by his refusal to apologize for either his past or his present.
On the left, the Brazilian political scientist José Luiz Fiori argues that "though Cardoso achieved prominence as a Marxist sociologist in the 1960s and 1970s, it can be argued — even though his early works contain a vehement, well-reasoned indictment of the course he has come to take as President — that the trajectory of his intellectual career contains no major breaks." (1) Fiori labels Cardoso a puppet of the neoliberal, new colonialist, multinational business elite. But he doesn't believe that Cardoso has abandoned Marxist theory. On the contrary, he makes the odd accusation that Cardoso is using his Marxism in the service of his new masters.
On the right, the American political scientist Robert Packenham calls Cardoso an ideologue who ignores empirical evidence. Yet, Packenham observes that "no one exemplified the change in Marxist thinking in a more vivid and significant way than Cardoso." (2) Packenham supports Cardoso politically, and says he would have voted for him if he were a Brazilian, but he cannot forgive Cardoso his failure to repent his Marxist past.
Fiori and Packenham raise a puzzling question. Isn't Marxism a critique of capitalism and a harbinger of socialist revolution? If so, how can such a theory be used in defense of the new capitalist world order? What can it mean to be a Marxist in a post-Communist era when almost no one believes in a centrally administered socialist economy?
Cardoso has actually been more consistent in both his theory and his practice than many people assume. In 1964, Cardoso was completing his doctorate in sociology and preparing for an academic career at the University of São Paulo when the military coup d'état forced him into exile in Santiago de Chile. He got a job with a United Nations think-tank where he was thrown into international debates about development policy. The result of these discussions was the book, Dependency and Development in Latin America, co-authored with Enzo Faletto, which established his international reputation. Dependency and Development had a leftist tone, which criticized the exploitation of Latin America by imperial powers. But it also showed that Latin American nations had, at certain points in history, been able to find strategies for development within the confines of the capitalist world system. It was more subtle and sophisticated than much of the literature on dependency, which portrayed Latin America as a helpless victim of Europe and North America.
Cardoso returned to Brazil when things seemed to be easing up in 1968, and won a Chair in Political Science at the University of São Paulo, only to be forced out of academia by a military crackdown on the left. He and a number of prominent academics were forcibly "retired" and prohibited by law from holding university jobs anywhere in Brazil. The military leaders, however, respected their scholarly achievements and permitted them to start an applied research institute. This had the unexpected consequence of making them much more influential than they would have been as university professors. Their most influential study, a book called São Paulo: Growth and Poverty, documented the suffering caused by the military's economic and social policies. It was sponsored by the Catholic Church, and helped to build a mass movement for democratic reform.
As a writer and internationally renowned intellectual, Cardoso was a frequent spokesman for the Brazilian redemocratization movement. His political success owes much to the great respect that Brazilians have for intellectuals. Many business people, civic leaders and military men follow the currents of intellectual life. The leading newspapers publish lengthy scholarly essays, and Cardoso himself wrote a regular column for the Folha de São Paulo for many years.
Cardoso has good political skills and connections, and he was able to use his base of support in the redemocratization movement to win nomination as one of the major opposition party's candidates for Senator from the state of São Paulo in 1978. He came in second in the election, which, in the Brazilian election system, put him in line to become Senator when the leader of the ticket resigned to become governor of the state. He was a respected senator, and served for a time as majority leader. He also held the posts of Foreign Minister and Finance Minister. In the latter position, he successfully ended Brazil's hyperinflation and established the conditions for a period of rapid economic growth.
How do these accomplishments relate to his Marxism? Cardoso explained his view of Marxism in an article published in France in 1969. (3) At the time, he was teaching at the University of Paris campus in suburban Nanterre, a hotbed of student activism where many thought capitalism was on its death bed and socialist revolution was imminent. Cardoso disagreed. Unlike many Marxists who blamed political errors for the failure of Marx's predictions, Cardoso thought that Marx's economic theory had essential flaws. In his view, Marxist economics simply could not account for the success of the working class in Europe or for the division of the capitalist world into core and peripheral countries.
Why, then, didn't Cardoso simply abandon Marxism? He did discard Marxist economics as outdated. But he thought that Marx still had value, not as an economist, but a sociologist and as an applied philosopher of knowledge. One thing, which Cardoso retained from the Marxist opus, was Marx's dialectical model of analysis, which combined formal economic research with sensitive political and sociological analysis. In his thinking about the philosophy of science, Cardoso has been influenced by his close friend, the leading Brazilian philosopher José Arthur Gianotti. The two of them were leading members of the Marxist Study Group of their youth, a group which is now famous throughout Brazil for the distinguished scholars and leaders which it produced.
By emphasizing the dialectic as a key element in Marxist thinking, Cardoso infused his Marxism with a heavy dose of voluntarism. He denied that political outcomes were determined by social forces, insisting that they could be changed by strategic and tactical decisions made by leaders. Many Marxists, by contrast, thought of Marxism as a determinist philosophy, which predicted inevitable changes made necessary by the functional requirements of the capitalist system. Cardoso is not the only Marxist to reject this functionalist interpretation of Marx. The debate between "crass materialist determinism" and more politically dynamic views goes back to the time of Marx and Engels. (4)
Cardoso explained his approach to sociological analysis in an interview published in 1976:
"What I try to do is to illuminate with certain intellectual categories a particular historical situation. And I try to keep up with the newest techniques — I've done some game theory with the computer — but the available techniques are still weak. They are based on empirical generalizations, attempting to capture the constancies, the regularities of a situation, emphasizing the most stable aspects. One can in a given investigation develop instruments for detecting the current tensions and conflicts, the values of the actors. But there is no methodology for understanding the forces that are emerging, and yet change is always my main preoccupation, what in Hegelian-Marxist dialectic would be called the negation of the situation... It only makes sense if you can combine theory, research, the historical moment, and practice — but it is hard to play that game, to move among the levels, and it takes flexibility, both intellectual and emotional."(5)
Cardoso's generation was decisively shaped by the Brazilian military coup d'état in 1964. Many leftists of the time were tragically misled by the belief that the political crisis was caused by the failure of dependent capitalism. They thought that the only options were socialist revolution or socio-economic stagnation. In fact, there was a third option: continued capitalist development with social reforms. What kept this from happening was a political crisis, not an economic one. The moderate reformers, who had enough votes and popular support to impose a compromise, allowed themselves to be misled by extremists on the left and the right who opposed reconciliation.
In his analysis of the 1964 coup d'état, Cardoso rejected the determinist interpretation:
"I do not believe that 1964 was written inexorably in the economic logic of history. Instead, I believe that the political process plays an active role in the definition of the course of events. Or, better, if it is true that inflation, the sharpening of the class struggle, and the difficulty of maintaining the rhythm of capitalist expansion in the socio-economic conditions prevailing during the Goulart government, radicalized the political forces and moved the institutional bases of the regime, the insurrectional movement was one of the possible solutions, not the only one, as an economistic view of history would claim." (6) Cardoso did not need to abandon Marxism for another theory because his interpretation of Marx allowed him to include all of the factors he thought important. Although he was thinking more and more like a mainstream sociologist in some ways, he continued to be emotionally tied to his Marxist roots. In an interview published in 1978, Cardoso told an interviewer:
"If you want to know my personal statement of faith, I am favorable to abolishing the system of exploiters and exploited! But this is a statement of faith, which has perhaps a biographical or moral importance. What is important is to develop a political attitude, not a moralistic attitude. What is important is to know which forces are moving in a given direction, to introduce the act of faith into the reality of the current situation." (7)
Cardoso's focus on the dialectical flux of events distinguishes him from positivist social scientists who test and retest what they hope will be lasting theories. Robert Packenham, for example, has spent years testing and criticizing a set of ideas which he and others call "dependency theory." And they have found the theory, especially in its "development of underdevelopment" version, to be wrong. This version of dependency theory, most closely associated with the work of André Gunder Frank, predicted that the third world countries would get poorer and poorer as long as they were involved with multinational capitalism. Their only alternative was to break out of the world capitalist system and follow a socialist path to development.
Packenham, and many others, have plenty of statistics to prove that this theory was wrong. Cardoso says, yes, of course, the world has changed. In the nineteenth century, capitalists extracted raw materials from Latin America and did their manufacturing in Europe. Today, multinational companies do their manufacturing in the third world countries, and this has allowed some of these countries to develop rapidly.
Cardoso never believed in "dependency theory" in the sense that social scientists such as Packenham use the word "theory." For Cardoso, the dependency of third world nations on the world economy is an important topic for study, not a theory to be tested. Ever since his days as a student at the University of São Paulo, his mentor Florestan Fernandes taught him to use social theory as a toolbox from which one selects the best tool to do a particular job. As the problems change, one must put down one tool and pick up another. Cardoso's goal was not to defend Marxism or any other theory, but to understand and influence the society which was emerging around him.
In the 1970s, The Brazilian capitalist economy was booming and revolutionary movements had been decisively suppressed. The issue of the day was figuring out how to make a transition back to democracy, despite the unquestioned military hegemony of the armed forces. Marxism didn't help much with this problem, so Cardoso reached into his theoretical toolbox and pulled out other ideas. He often quoted the Italian writer Norberto Bobbio on the process of democratization. In his maiden speech to the Brazilian Senate, he quoted from Max Weber, the preeminent sociologist of bureaucracy and public administration, not from Karl Marx.
This does not mean, however, that Cardoso became a Weberian instead of a Marxist. Cardoso's focus is on the problem of the day, not on any particular theory. He is an applied sociologist, using whatever theories and methods he needs for the case at hand. As such, he insists that he is often a better Marxist than many of his more doctrinaire critics. He argues, for example, that the widespread belief among leftists that the rich countries will become richer while the poor will become poorer is "anti-Marxist. In the vision of Marx, the system will tend to homogenize, to become more dispersed..." Cardoso believes that, in today's world, "capital is going to China and to the emerging countries, in great quantity. For a very simple reason: you have an excess of capital in the world, a surplus. And the profitability is much greater in the periphery."(9)
Cardoso thinks that much of his "leftist" opposition is rooted in moral idealism rather than in scientific analysis. He observes, "consider the criticism of the government which is summarized in the phrase `neoliberal'. This is pure posturing, on a purely ethical plane... It is only a moral condemnation. They start from a distortion — as if the government were really neoliberal — and they make a moral condemnation. They do not see reality, they do not see the real social patterns, they do not see that which is changing. They do not see even the facts. This prevents political action."
Cardoso believes that in the post-Soviet world there is no viable alternative to the capitalist mode of production. The only realistic approach in this historical conjuncture is to do whatever is necessary to make Brazil into a prosperous, modern capitalist nation. In effect, he agrees with José Luiz Fiori's argument that he is using his Marxism in support of the new capitalist world order. He observes that his government "is making it possible for the most advanced sectors of capitalism to prevail. It is certainly not a regime at the service of monopoly capitalism nor of bureaucratic capitalism, but of that capitalism which is competitive under the new conditions of production. It is, in this sense, socially progressive." To advocate anything else in today's world, he believes, would be moral posturing, good for the soul perhaps, but not helpful to Brazil.
This does not mean that Cardoso has given up on the human concerns of the left. Like all Brazilian progressives, he is deeply concerned about the suffering of the country's huge impoverished and marginal populations, especially the landless peasants and the shantytown poor in the cities. And he is painfully aware of his government's limitations in meeting these urgent needs. He frankly concedes that his government is not the "regime of the excluded, because it does not have the conditions to be. I would like to incorporate them more, but I cannot say that this will be." In Cardoso's view, the poor are not part of the dynamic sector of the economy, they cannot be the social basis for progress. Nor can the working class be the vehicle of universal values, as Marx had anticipated. "What was Marx's grand revolutionary proposal," Cardoso asks? "It was that there was one class, and only one, that, by its specific nature, would be the carrier of universal values. Today this is difficult to sustain, if only because this class, today, is diminishing in quantity and changing its behavior... you will see that progressively the unions are no longer against the employers, they are against the government."
Cardoso wants to help the poor and dispossessed, not only for ethical reasons, but also because society cannot function smoothly with millions of people at its margins. In his phrase, the excluded are "sand in the machinery" of society, and social programs are needed to integrate them into the mainstream. However, these programs can be paid for only if the economy is vigorous and the government cuts waste, corruption and unnecessary bureaucracy. In terms of practical politics, he has much in common with Franklin Roosevelt or Bill Clinton.
For Cardoso, Marxist sociology is not a set of doctrines and principles handed down from the nineteenth century, it is a body of knowledge, which has to be continually revised to fit changing circumstances. This kind of sociology is very demanding, because it requires him to "read everything" and make his own judgments about each policy issue. The technical details may be left to experts, but the major decisions are dependent on his analysis of the historical conjuncture.
When it is done well, this approach can be highly effective. When Cardoso first became Finance Minister, for example, his team of brilliant young economists told him nothing could be done until the political system had been reformed. Government spending had to be brought under control, corruption and inefficiency had to be reigned in. Once he did that, they could fix the inflation, no problem. Otherwise they couldn't make any promises. Many Brazilians were discouraged, fearing that the nation's chronic inflation and social problems were unsolvable.
If Cardoso had viewed economic policy as a technical issue, he would have accepted this economic advice, and he would have failed just as his predecessors in the Brazilian presidency did. As a dialectical thinker, Cardoso focused on the historical conjuncture. He knew that he had to solve the inflation problem quickly, because only that would give him the political clout necessary to make the needed reforms. He insisted that the economists put together a plan for monetary reform and told Congress he wouldn't implement it unless they put aside enough money to keep the government running through the transition period. Impressed with his plan and his confidence, and lacking any viable alternative, Congress passed his measures and hyperinflation was defeated.
In the 1994 elections, progressives around the world placed their hopes on the leftist union leader Lula da Silva and his Workers Party. Lula is a good friend and sometimes political ally of Cardoso's, and many of Cardoso's close friends belong to the Workers Party. But Cardoso declined to join the Workers Party when it was formed because he thought it was more focused on moral righteousness than on political reality. With hindsight, many of the Workers Party's supporters concede that he was right, at least with regard to the Party's stance in the 1994 election. In a recent book, two English leftists who are strong supporters of Lula and angry critics of Cardoso's free-market policies, reach the following reluctant conclusion:
"Notable by its absence [in the Worker's Party program] was any specific reference to the vexed question of hyperinflation... the party still had a working-class mentality, born out of decades of wage bargaining, which found it impossible to imagine that a national agreement between employers and the government for eliminating inflation could serve the interests of workers. So the National Meeting demanded, instead, monthly wage increases, failing to see that this would merely feed inflation in a self-defeating spiral." (8)
Fernando Henrique Cardoso won the presidency because he had a solution to the nation's most vexing problem and the opposition did not. His training as a social scientist enabled him to understand and use the latest economic knowledge about hyperinflation and its remedies, making his own judgments instead of relying on advisors.
As President, Cardoso has continued to do battle with those on the left who oppose privatization, deregulation and civil service reform. His first major struggle as President was to defeat a strike by petroleum workers, supported by many on the left, who opposed opening their industry up to foreign competition. He believes that Brazil's governmental bureaucracies are too large and inefficient, and that its social security system has made promises which cannot be met. The new Brazilian constitution, passed in 1988 by a constituent assembly eager to constrain future authoritarian governments, weakens his hand in confronting the interest groups. Many reforms require constitutional amendments, and some congressmen seem more concerned with political posturing than with the good of the country. There was dancing in the halls of congress when the opposition stymied his first attempt to pass a much needed social security reform. The left is split into factions without viable policy alternatives to offer, but it has been able to join with machine politicians to block reforms intended to trim ineffective government agencies.
Brazilians of all political persuasions respect Cardoso as a man of integrity and exceptional ability, traits which were sorely lacking in several of his predecessors. But they wonder if his Marxist training and social democratic sympathies will make any real difference. His old friend from the Marxist study group days, São Paulo economist Paul Singer, insists that "all the reforms which he is implementing are those which all over the world the right is implementing. There is no difference." Perhaps, his critics argue, Cardoso's Marxism is little more that a biographical idiosyncrasy since the constraints of global economic forces mean that the best even a well intentioned social democrat can do is to better administer capitalism. This cynicism is fed by the kind of determinist Marxism which believes that no individual can do much to change social forces.
How valid are these arguments? Paul Singer is correct in observing that Cardoso's economic policies are similar to those implemented in countries such as Argentina, Chile and Mexico. Cardoso's economic advisors have been trained in the same universities, and apply many of the same state-of-the-art economic ideas as their colleagues in other countries. But there is a difference in Cardoso's broader social goals. Most Latin American leaders are trained in law, political science or economics, while Cardoso is very much a sociologist. The economists and lawyers have often temporarily fixed the economy, but failed to integrate the masses into the benefits of the reforms. When the benefits fail to trickle down, resentment builds up and reform efforts are sabotaged.
As a sociologist, Cardoso has a profound understanding of class and group differences. He also has a long history of involvement in social movements independent of government and corporate circles. He and his anthropologist wife, Ruth Cardoso, have ambitious plans to mobilize non-governmental forces to address social problems. These plans have been on the back burner in the first years of his administration, when absolute priority had to be given to economic and administrative reforms. If he succeeds in consolidating these reforms, and in having the constitution amended so that he can run for a second four-year term, he may be able to do more to incorporate the country's marginalized groups.
If Cardoso is to succeed in mobilizing support for his social initiatives, he will need as much constructive support as he can get from the left. He is disappointed that the left dissipates much of its energy in complaining about the lack of resources to sustain the old patronage systems, resources which in the past might have been found by inflating the currency at the expense of the poor. He believes that "the old-fashioned ideas which still dominate sectors of Brazilian thought, especially in organized groups, impede the recognition that we have to break with the bureaucratic norms of the past."
Cardoso believes that too many Brazilians are caught up in a "failure mania" and simply do not believe that the country can break away from its past. These cynics recall the old saying, "Brazil is the country of the future...and always will be." Cardoso is convinced that those days are gone and that Brazil is already competing strongly on the world stage. Those who are stuck to what he calls the "whining mentality" of the past must be confronted, lest their pessimism become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Cardoso's critics believe that he has gone too far in accommodating to multinational capitalism, and they dismiss his social reform ideas as mere window-dressing designed to build support for his political party and for his own reelection. In practical political terms, however, his strongest opposition is still on the right, not the left, and armed revolution is out of the question. Whatever their moral qualms, at this point in history, Brazilian progressives have no realistic alternative to supporting Cardoso in his reformist efforts.
1. NACLA Report on the Americas, May, 1995
2. The Dependency Movement: Scholarship and Politics in Development Studies. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992, p. 216.
3. "La contribution de Marx à la théorie du changement social." In Marx et la Pensée Scientifique Contemporaine. Paris: Mouton, 1969.
4. The English philosopher Jon Elster has developed this point in depth in "Marxism, Functionalism, and Game Theory," Theory and Society, vol. 11, 1982.
5. In Joseph Kahl, Modernization, Exploitation and Dependency in Latin America. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books. 1976, pp. 180, 178.
6. O Modelo Político Brasileiro e Outros Ensaios, São Paulo: Difusão Européia do Livro, 1972, p. 65.
7. Democracia para Mudar. São Paulo: Paz e Terra, 1978 p. 58.
8. Sue Branford and Bernando Kucinski, Brazil: Carnival of the Oppressed; Lula and the Brazilian Worker's Party, London: Latin American Bureau, 1995, p. 65-66.
9. This and subsequent quotes are from an interview with Cardoso in the Caderno Mais of the Folha de São Paulo, October 13, 1996.
Ted Goertzel is a Sociology professor at the Rutgers University He is the author of five books, the latest two being Linus Pauling: A Life in Science and Politics and Turncoats and True Believers: The Dynamics of Political Belief and Disillusionment. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org