The weapons of Theotonio dos Santos have not lost their edge. The Brazilian economist and sociologist, who recently passed away at the age of 81 in Río de Janeiro, bequeathed to Latin American and Caribbean emancipatory thought an original work, essential to understanding the history and reality of the region.
His formidable theoretical production was reflected in obligatory reference books such as: The Brazilian Ruling Class (1966), Socialism or Fascism: The Latin American Dilemma (1969), Imperialism and Dependency (1978), The Socialist Strategy and Tactics of Marx and Engels to Lenin (1980), Scientific-Technical Revolution and Contemporary Capitalism (1983), World Economy and Regional Integration (1995), Dependency Theory: Evaluation and Perspectives (2002), Globalization in Integration in the Americas (2005), and Productive Forces and Production Relations: An Introductory Essay (2013); as well as dozens of articles.
The most recognized contribution of Dos Santos is linked to the formulation of Dependency Theory in the 1960s and 70s, in which his life partner, Vania Bambirra, and his friend, Ruy Mauro Marini, collaborated.
These were times marked by the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, the emergence of non-traditional leftist forces that invigorated political and social struggles, and the reformulation of the United States’ mechanisms of domination in Latin America, which led to the establishment of dictatorial regimes in several countries.
The arguments of Dos Santos and his Brazilian colleagues were related to the studies carried out during the same period by the German André Gunder Frank (Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America, 1967, and Latin America: Underdevelopment or Revolution). The influence of another name associated with the initial period of this approach, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, waned due to his restrained social democratic framework and the fact that in practice he ended up sustaining the neoliberal model, when he became President of Brazil.
Dependency Theory exposed the intimate relationship between development and underdevelopment; the exacerbation of the latter condition due to the logic of domination and capitalist accumulation of the Western industrialized countries; the demystification of the developmental fallacy based on the alliance between the state and the national bourgeoisie; and the dialectic between relations of subordination between countries and domestic class structures.
Like all theory, it had its limitations and failed to meet certain expectations that at one time seemed closer than they were in reality. A self-critical Gunder Frank, at the beginning of the current century, in an analysis shared with Dos Santos, pointed out as a substantive shortcoming the lack of definition of effective ways for the definitive subversion on the regional scale of the oppressive relations of external and internal dependency.
But he also observed: “Our antagonists and enemies did not offer better answers. Nor do they really say how to truly end the dependency that exists, or how to end poverty, the alienation, which according to them is based on a dependency that, according to them, does not even exist. It is also clear that those who voluntarily let themselves be carried away by the Washington Consensus could not have been much more wrong. And if it were not so horrific, the excuse they offer might seem funny, that Doctor Washington’s prescription was indeed the right medicine, and the problem lies only in the fact that the patients – and how patient they were and still are – did not swallow it in sufficient quantities.”
Theotonio did not stand idly by before or after. In his youth he became involved in the creation of a new party of the Brazilian working class, and later, persecuted by the coup leaders of his country, he moved to Chile, where he actively supported the Popular Unity of Salvador Allende.
When he returned from exile in 1979, he alternated academic responsibilities with social activism, and in recent years he accompanied the efforts of the Workers’ Party governments to introduce changes in the social status of the majority of Brazilians. Of course, he warned of the danger of making concessions and entering into alliances with political sectors that ultimately undermined these processes, finally resulting in the parliamentary coup d’état that overthrew President Dilma.
Lula thought highly of Theotonio. Upon learning of his death, he declared: “A steadfast advocate of a sovereign Latin America, he leaves an extensive theoretical and intellectual legacy to the Latin American people and inspires us to continue in the struggle for a world with more social justice.”
He was among the founders of the Network of Intellectuals, Artists and Social Movements in Defense of Humanity, participated in numerous forums of denunciation and for the construction of emancipating alternatives, and showed deep-rooted and committed solidarity with Bolivarian Venezuela. He perceptively noted: “Our oligarchies are accustomed to undermining the role of emotion in political activity.” He paid attention to the current imperialist offensive against popular movements of the continent and warned: “Everything that is not under United States control becomes a threat.”
Theotonio admired the Cuban Revolution, though without failing to voice doubts and questions born of his intellectual honesty. But his devotion to Fidel remained unscathed. He wrote a testimony about the historic leader, publishedin Granma: “I have met many politicians of various positions, outside of and in power. None has or had the intellectual depth and human dimension of Fidel Castro. None manages to maintain the systematic study of a problem for hours and hours in all its details and in all its aspects as Fidel (...) But above all, he is the only politician at the head of state level who accepts open debate with those who disagree with his points of view.”
Given what he offered in terms of revolutionary theory and practice, we would have to agree that Theotonio dos Santos remained faithful to the principle – of impressive validity – stated by Marx in 1845 in the Theses on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”