Revolutionary Syndicalism and Reformism in Rio de Janeiro’s Labour Movement (1906–1920)

By Claudio H M Batalha

Divided between revolutionary syndicalism and reformist unions, Rio de Janeiro’s labour movement represented one of the most complex local cases during the Brazilian First Republic. This article intends to show how relations between these two currents were far from clear cut, and that, despite the confrontational discourse they adopted and the disputes over labour unions they were involved in, they eventually shared common practices and, to some degree, a common culture. To most observers, Rio de Janeiro’s labour movement after 1906 appeared clearly divided into two antagonistic factions: ” revolutionary syndicalism ” or followers of ” direct action ” , on the one hand, and ” reformist ” trade unions on the other. This division persisted at least up to the 1920s, when a third competing force, the Communist Party, entered the dispute. However, like in many other countries, these two currents continued to be major referents in the subsequent political disputes within the labour movement. Until today, these labels are among the best known in the history of labour movements: They are firmly established, even iconic attributions, apparently valid all around the world with a stable meaning. Furthermore, they have been perpetuated by historians, who use them to make sense of different actors and currents in the history of labour. Of course, to a high degree these labels refer to differences that were real (both in the sense of stemming from realities and of creating these realities through their discursive power), and such differences are most commonly defined along a spectrum of certain programmatic and strategic orientations. Yet, as has repeatedly been pointed out by both activists and academics, they are also deeply problematic: their meaning shifts over time and, within one period, is not the same in different locations; their boundaries are not clear cut, sometimes even fluid, even within or in relation to the same organizational and individual actors (especially over the course of a lifespan). In addition, this division, to the degree that it was real, was rendered in different terms.


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