James P. Woodard. A Place in Politics: São Paulo, Brazil, from Seigneurial Republicanism to Regionalist Revolt. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009. Maps. 403 pp. $89.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8223-4346-2; $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8223-4329-5.
Reviewed by Cristina Mehrtens (University of Massachuesetts, Dartmouth)
Published on H-LatAm (November, 2010)
Commissioned by Kenneth Kincaid
São Paulo’s Place in the Politics of Early Twentieth-Century Brazil
James P. Woodard revisits paulista politics during the Old Republic (1889-1930) to perceptively position events and people in the sociopolitical regional-national scenario and reveal how São Paulo played its privileged place in the seigneurial one-party political system of early twentieth-century agrarian Brazil. Through careful exhaustive historiographical research, Woodard draws a detailed account of different political mechanisms supporting the republican machine in the paulista capital and state. Focusing on the under-examined theme of political participation and the formation of the public sphere, Woodard questions and gives new insights into the current interpretative framework according to which republican politics was the exclusive preserve of a privileged group linked to the coffee sector, a political culture “thin in content and limited in its reach” (p. 3). Divided into an introduction, six chapters, and a conclusion, A Place in Politics also offers a note on the orthography of Brazilian-Portuguese terms and a set of maps related to São Paulo state’s 1926 electoral district classification. Though never integrated into the narrative, the maps constitute a physical metaphor to the period’s seigneurial logic depicted in the book. The first two chapters examine the period’s cultural and sociopolitical context, while each of the next four chronologically focuses on politico-reformist arenas as windows into the period’s public sphere. The four nationalist mobilizations are the 1910s democratic rebellions (including Ruy Barbosa’s presidential campaigns), the military upheaval of 1924, the creation of the Democratic Party (PD) in 1926, and the 1930 revolution.
Chapter 1, “São Paulo as a Developing Society,” sheds light into the formation of the paulista public sphere and its model citizen. Drawing on Richard Graham and Joseph Love, Woodard explores sociocultural symbolic layers in the paulista political process. Characterized by patronage and personalism, fraud and favor, and corruption and clientele building, the political process permeated an expanding public space that evolved under steady interaction between the capital city (and its neighborhoods) and the urban spheres within different municipalities in the state. This dynamic left room for conflict within and between the distinct groups inhabiting the distinct layers. The exemplar paulista “model citizen” was “viriliously” male, illiterate, respectable (of middling or better means), and often but not always white (p. 12). Departing from this citizen, Woodard analyzes how new ideas (e.g., the secret ballot) thrived in patriotic republican ideals and imagery to inspire and inform the period’s anti-machine movements.
Chapter 2, “A Republic of Layers,” focuses on the paulista republican system’s social structure, set of practices, and role in the contradictory political culture of the period. As the most powerful ally of Barbosa’s 1909-10 “Civilianist Campaign,” the paulista political machine shared with the contested presidential bid its ambivalence. Socially, the paulista political system displayed a dynamic hierarchy ranging from the “historic” (cultured, well-educated, urbane) republican passing through the “rump PRP leadership” (Partido Republicano Paulista), composed of a number of prominent self-proclaimed “doutores” (anonymous regional chieftains, scores of neighborhood notables, and would-be ward bosses), to “the less impressive types” (folk healers and country schoolteachers) (pp. 37, 39). County politics rested on reproducing hierarchies and places within the system. Key agents (cabo eleitoral, county police delegates) participated in different electoral tactics--from the bridled voter (eleitor de cabestro) and mobile voter (phosphoros) to tampering with the ballot box and open altering of results (bico de pena)--which never discarded the use of violence. The political discourse oscillated between deeply rooted nineteenth-century conservative values and liberal republican ideals. Woodard analyzes practices (rituals and symbols) that metaphorically illustrate this tension. The most prominent concepts associated with those practices were prestige/honor, independence/“manly liberty of action,” loyalty/public support, progress, civilization, and civismo/public spiritedness. Closely tied to the adjective culto was the zeal for progress and civilization, which led the top hierarchical political figures’ “enlightened opinion” to be identified as the voice of a “public opinion” (pp. 55, 56).
In important and hitherto unstudied ways, chapter 3, “War and the Health of the State,” investigates how political campaigns and intellectual debates of the late 1910s led to the end of the seigneurial political order. From 1919, the system confronted a new opposition congregating republicans of varied stripes--from “pro-Ruy” admirers that included journalists, and law, engineering, and medical students to machine politicians from lesser Brazilian states and dissident politicians. The opposition’s agency and tactics grew from the interplay among political agents and critical contemporary events--nationalist mobilizations and labor conflicts (strikes of 1917 and 1919), as well as responses to the worldwide influenza epidemic. Woodard underlines the key position the army’s officer corps held in the transition from a 1919-ideologically inspired opposition to the new politicking after 1924. By 1924, the state political machine found itself facing a military revolt that challenged the existing national political order and whose rebel leaders were to become iconic figures. The new political discourse was more rhetorical than consistent and it came to play a renewed vital role. Accordingly, journalists and students capitalized on the political mobilizations and manipulated their oppositional power through the vital support of professional groups. That is, though professional groups usually claimed “nonpartisan status”--and defined themselves as corporative and “ostensibly non-political”--they crafted influential manifestos published in newspapers. The opposition members also manipulated the patronage system to seek support from known political figures in the state. The politicians made use of the campaign to cement their own local dominance. In the absence of scholarly monographs or contemporary chronicles on the subject, Woodard heavily relies on the newspaper O Combate.
Chapter 4, “Knaves, Pedants, and Rebels,” examines both the reactions in different paulista cities and the intellectual response to the failed 1924 revolution in the capital city. First, Woodard moves the political jockeying of 1924 from the state capital and its immediate environs into the state’s interior counties to distinguish three basic types of local experiences: pro-rebel towns with large military detachments; neutral towns; and pro-PRP towns with local civilians--idealists, incumbents, and outs. Second, the author explores the letters and appeals to the press and national congress of intellectuals (writers, PRP politicians, alumni of the National League, educational reformers, and agrarian lawyers), which demanded immediate political reform. Intellectuals expressed three main political concerns: militarism, civilian caudilhismo/nepotism, and the incitement to popular revolt. In taking us back to the events and mind-set portrayed in the contemporary media, Woodard outlines how the media (e.g., O ESP, the Tacape, and the Diário Nacional) lionized the tenentes’ (lieutenants) rebellious image. Accordingly, it was the Brazilian media that democratized the 1924 leaders and made them contemporary celebrities. The PRP revenge/return after the rebels withdrew was bittersweet because “neither repression nor the reconstitution of the perrepista leadership served to restore public confidence in the existing political order” (p. 143).
The origin of the PD of São Paulo was intertwined with this “Gathering-Forces” moment, marked by a high degree of dissension and stress in the PRP. The PD became the exemplary model of this period’s democracy in action, and chapter 5, “An Experiment in Democracy,” delves into how this party was able to challenge the state’s republican machine in constitutionalist terms. Woodard asserts that the civilian party became both the most important institutional spinner of the military-rebel mythos and the most unsuccessful challenge to the (PRP) republican machine. In paulista politics, cultural conflict seemed to be more important than economic conflict, which explains how PD success in its first years had more to do with “cultural capital than it did with coffee capital” (p. 13). The party received support from throughout the state first from large planters, merchants, industrialists, professionals, smaller-scale agriculturalists, small businessmen, and collar-and-tie employees before reaching “the literate and respectable upper reaches of the working class” (p. 161).
In an original approach, Woodard considers the vital six-year period before the 1930 coup d’état as a key moment for a city that had undergone a state of siege. Accordingly, the reconfigured political activity developed in those years imposed different strategies in the clientage system that were to shape political forces from then throughout the 1930s. As a result, the elitist underpinnings of republican political culture became inseparable from the PD’s early growth. The PD’s successful start in the elections of 1927 rested on the work of party building and Woodard explores this continued effort in the party’s congresses to conclude that the PD became the choice for the working class because workers parties were nonexistent, it opposed the PRP, and it proposed to resume the political work of the revolutionary movement of 1924. In general terms, the conservative PRP oppressed and the liberal PD seemed full of potential.
Chapter 6, “Moments and Truths,” roils the paulista waters of politics at the outset of the new decade. Covering the 1929-30 years, Woodard notes how events from abroad and out of state exerted profound influences on paulista politics. Usually presented in a simplistic fashion, the events, according to Woodard show how “regional brinkmanship, economic collapse, and military conspiracy each played a part,” as did the “existing structures of politics and patterns of conflict” (p. 14). Woodard identifies these and how they mirrored the context from pre-presidential politics to the Liberal Alliance and PD deals. Influential paulista writer Monteiro Lobato surfaces as a metaphor for the political opposition: Lobato was never a modern, never a democrático, but he was respected and read by them.
In the conclusion and epilogue, “Politics, Culture, and Class in the History of Twentieth-Century Brazil,” Woodard seeks answers to the paulista claim of setting “Brazil aright” in the first decades of the twentieth century. The state had undergone many important political events including the revolt of 1924 and the creation of the PD in 1926. Woodard’s research sheds light on the deeply ingrained proprietary and personalistic features of São Paulo’s political structure to assert that the state’s pre-1930 political experiences prefigured and paved the way for important national events in the 1930s, including the 1932 regionalist revolt. Most of all, the rebellion mirrored the feeling of impeding catastrophe permeating the PRP machinery of government. Woodard concludes that the official PRP, which represented the legalist force, was a party that had undergone many schisms in the 1920s, and that the politics of the 1930s was a result of the long-term effects of the PD failure.
Woodard’s study offers an elegantly crafted narrative on paulista republicanism and political culture and presents a nuanced view of the political conflicts of the 1920s: from the rising middle class, coffee-planter reactions, interregional brinkmanship, the institutional interests of the army officer corps, and the “Revolution of 1930.” The seigneurial Old Republic ruled over dispersed, disparate populations whose members had to be convinced that they owed their principal loyalty to an “imagined republic” of a distinct and coherent people from the party: the letrado culto (literati) politician in the party. Woodard demonstrates how every county struggled in its own way and examines the ineffective republicanization of the Old Republic. Democracy was not a victory from the antiestablishment groups depicted here. Later political gains (presidential elections and the secret ballot) were a political response to international conflicts and the new balance of forces after World War II. Those gains reinforced political strategies interpreted and reinterpreted by a political generation born out of earlier struggles. Students from the 1920s and 1930s were the professionals of the postwar period. With a frequently penetrating provocative writing style, Woodard takes us through the different interconnected social layers of the Old Republic in an interpretive tour that brings new light into a too often distorted, politicized, and mishandled historical moment. With a rhetorical broadsword and a fearless abandon, he directs his most cogent criticism at the particular kind of historically constructed identity that is nationalism. His investigation of this vital transitional period is a gift to professionals and students of Brazilian political history.
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Cristina Mehrtens. Review of Woodard, James P., A Place in Politics: São Paulo, Brazil, from Seigneurial Republicanism to Regionalist Revolt.
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