- Jacobins, Bolsheviks, and the Dream of Revolution:October 1917 in the Trajectory of a Brazilian Metalworker of African Descent
Bloody massacres, cruel killings, and monumental suffering are inextricably bound up with the world historical revolutions that defined the trajectory of global modernity: the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917. The image of Jacobins and Bolsheviks, revolutionaries with hard hearts for dark times, symbolized the subversive ideologies of the two movements: the radically antifeudal “rights of man” liberalism of the former and the anticapitalism and anti-imperialism of international communism. As the centerpiece of the Age of Revolutions, the dramatic events in France and Haiti were above all a phenomenon of the Atlantic and Mediterranean worlds encompassing the western portion of the Eurasian land mass and its near periphery (the Americas). After 1917, European colonialism, an increasingly integrated global market, and the communications revolution allowed the Russian Revolution, on a planetary scale, to attract hundreds of thousands of sympathizers and followers—as well as rabid opponents—while giving rise to the most ambitious organized international political movement in world history.
What can we learn from the Brazilians who embraced a revolutionary vocation in the wake of the October Revolution in Czarist Russia? To answer, this article reflects on the trajectory of Eloy Martins, a skilled metalworker from southern Brazil, who has been studied by Alexandre Fortes, coauthor of this essay. Born in 1911 in the state of Santa Catarina, Martins was the grandson of an enslaved African who grew up in the port city of Laguna, which Anita Garibaldi and her husband Giuseppe proclaimed the capital of their short-lived “República Juliana.” As the son of a carpenter and a seamstress who were unable to sustain their four living children (of seven births), Martins departed in 1925 for the city of Porto Alegre in the neighboring state of Rio Grande do Sul, bringing his family a few years later. Rio Grande do Sul was [End Page 23] the base from which he built a sixty-year career as a union leader, a communist politician, and a professional revolutionary.
At the age of seventeen, Martins was employed in the Alcaraz and Company shipyard doing work he described as “terrible, heavy, and brutal” while active, with his brothers, in the anarchist Group of Apolitical Workers. The “good news” of the October Revolution reached him through the boilermaker Ramão, his immediate superior, who belonged to the tiny illegal Communist Party of Brazil (PCB) founded in 1922. Brazil at the time was an overwhelmingly agrarian and authoritarian society, the first to have established a slavery-based plantation economy in the sixteenth century and the last in the New World to abolish slavery in 1888. It is not surprising that anarchists were the most influential ideological tendency within the small urban labor movement that developed after 1906. In a highly unequal oligarchical nation, socialist-style reformism found little space to thrive because existing parliamentary forms, liberal political rhetoric, and elections were belied by boss rule, the exercise of arbitrary power, and the absence of both the secret ballot and mass voting.
The anarchist milieu in which Brazilian communism emerged had gained national visibility between 1917 and 1919 with general strikes in several major cities experiencing expanded industrial production and a soaring cost of living because of World War I. While international anarchist circles increasingly criticized the direction of the Russian Revolution, their persecuted counterparts in Brazil were founding ephemeral communist entities1 leading to the official founding of the PCB in 1922, which was eventually accepted as the Brazilian section of the Communist International.2 The social composition of its founders—seven manual workers from artisanal sectors and two intellectuals—did not include workers from the burgeoning textile, metalworking, food production, or furniture making industries. It was the successful drive to recruit young workers from these sectors—through mass agitation during the Comintern’s sectarian Third Period3—that launched the PCB on its way to becoming the principal organization of, and hegemonic influence on, the Left for the following half century.
Martins’s recruitment to the PCB was the result of...