In the last 40 years, the people of Brazil have broken stifling traditional constraints on their life, and have begun to develop their productive forces, to renovate their social institutions and to frame innumerable projects for the mastery of their own future. As they turn away from the bleak and narrow horizons of a colonial existence, the Brazilian people are visibly enriching their own economic, political and cultural life and are taking their destiny more and more into their own hands. To understand the importance of this change, it must be realized that in the last decades Brazil has been transformed from a predominantly agrarian into a predominantly urban and industrial civilization. A society dominated by tradition and by a communal way of life has been radically remoulded—into the rational patterns of the capitalist universe. A society whose basic political institution was coronelismo—rule by ‘colonels’—has seen the rise of populism, an intermediate stage in the development of the political consciousness of the propertyless masses.footnote1. Social classes remain unstructured and therefore lack crystallized visions of the world. Thus today, political organization reflects the ambiguities of a social system in transition.

Of course, extensive archaic sectors of society, based on a colonial or a subsistence economy, continue to exist and to preserve a communal culture and communal political forms. These areas continue to play an important rôle within Brazilian society as a whole. Nevertheless, on balance, Brazil today is marked by a clearly capitalist civilization in which the urban-industrial complex is paramount. Although its dominion is not yet absolute, mass society has largely supplanted traditional society. As a first approximation, it is fair to say that a communal, patrimonial civilization has been replaced by an associational, capitalist civilization.

These still incomplete changes have produced the inevitable tensions and contradictions of an expanding and diversifying socio-economic structure, political system and national culture. Revolutionary upheavals, institutional reforms, class-struggles, changes in political structure, marches and counter-marches towards economic independence and development, active participation by the army and the clergy in political life, increasing politicization of university students, rise of extra-party movements of public opinion—all these have shaken and are shaking Brazil. Their effect can be summed up as the democratization of Brazilian society. These fundamental phenomema give meaning and substance to national political life, which is basically determined by the course of the socio-economic development of the country. The perspectives for the Brazilian people, in these days of perplexity through which we are living, suggest a complex and fascinating future.

A dynamic concatenation of favourable conditions allowed Brazilian society to release its energies for the first time and to begin rapid development towards 1930. Although some of these conditions were present in previous decades—even in a sense since the achievement of Brazilian independence in 1822—it was not until 1930 that a truly national programme of social, political and economic transformation emerged.

The great coffee-crisis which started in 1929 is usually thought to have been the precipitating factor responsible for this profound change. In reality, as we shall see, it was not the prepotent event. It did, however, undoubtedly have an important bearing on the revolution of 1930. The socialization of losses,footnote2 a device dating back to 1906, stabilized the profits of coffee magnates at the direct expense of consumers of imported goods and, indirectly, of all those within the orbit of the market economy. Although it was not the fundamental cause of the revolutionary process which culminated in the events of 1930, this mechanism was an essential element in a conflict which involved major segments of the emerging industrial and financial bourgeoisie, the middle classes, the proletariat, as well as certain military groups committed to the democratization of national life. Politically, indeed, the burdensome effects of the socialization of losses were decisive. The device, which came into operation whenever there was a crisis—generally of overproduction—in coffee, was the most extreme and visible manifestation of an economic order which kept the country trapped and dependent within the international economy. The crises were determined from without, by deterioration in the terms of trade. In reaction against them, those groups not involved in coffee-culture began to organize political and military movements, which ultimately achieved a complete reorientation of national economic policy—although not until the 1930’s.