Still a Marxist

    Still a Marxist

    President Fernando Henrique Cardoso 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. Most Latin American leaders are trained in law,
    political science or economics, while Cardoso is very much a sociologist.
    As a sociologist, Cardoso has a profound understanding of class and group
    By Ted Goertzel

    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

    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.

    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."

    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

    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

    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:

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