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Food Riots, Strikes, and Looting in Brazil between 1917 and 1962: Defining the Repertoires of Working-Class Revolt

When one speaks of “food riots” as a phenomenon specific to Brazilian history, it may appear somewhat peculiar to those who conceive of the phenomenon in relation to an exclusively European context, and specifically to that of the emergence of a political economy of ‘market logic.’ The most famous analysis of food riots in these latter terms is evoked within specific works by the American scholar Charles Tilly, who understood that the seizing of food as a political “repertoire” was commonplace in European history between 1650 and 1850 (TILLY, MCADAM, SORROW, 2004, p. 75). Nevertheless, in the Brazilian context, “food riots” began occurring more frequently within the repertoire of political revolt amongst the country’s lower social classes between the late-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries. This paper argues that in 1917 food riots emerged in combination with a general strike, and the two continued to operate as a repertoire of popular revolt until 1922. In the decades which followed, however, they were gradually dissociated from one another, such that, in a new general strike in 1962, food riots had become simply a “phantasmagoria”—a collective historic imaginary that was no longer explicitly enacted as a form of class struggle but which, nevertheless, made the upper classes fear for the security of their property. As such, I argue that their reminiscences underlay a tradition that was too strong to simply be dismissed by the political parties and the labor movement. This paper, therefore, explores the ties that connected the general strikes of 1917 and 1962 from the perspective of food riots.

In the ensuing discussion, I explore two specific problems relating to the question of food riots in Brazil. The first relates to the need to theorize food riots as responses to specific political and economic conditions, much as general riots and looting were. I contend that food-related revolts should be conceptualized as riots only when the driving force behind the upheaval in question was a scarcity of provisions—a term which, in twentieth-century Brazil, was known as carestia de vida.1 But, as E.P. Thompson has reminded us, scarcity is not solely an economic phenomenon understood only by the empty stomach; it is also an intellectual product of political views of social rights and justice, and of insurrections and political performance. Clear definitions of these values are crucial for the development of a basis for direct action that can target those identified as responsible for mass hunger and the destruction of communitarian ties and ethical norms. But, of course, when we speak of twentieth-century food riots in Brazil, such ties and norms changed with the intense industrialization of the country’s urban centers.

The second point to consider is that riots, rebellions, and even revolutions were in the “order of the day” in Brazil during the late-nineteenth century. Furthermore, after the Brazilian Empire began to pursue a more liberal platform in its economic policies following the reign of Pedro II (1845-1889), new laws were created in order to standardize measurements in local markets, to ban the slave trade, and to protect private property (COSTA, 1999, p. 299-300; SECRETO, 2011, p. 26). Because of these fairly drastic changes, populations across many Brazilian cities and, especially, the countryside burst into revolt in the latter years of the 1800s.2 Some of those revolts can be characterized as “food riots,” as María Verónica Secreto (2011) showed in her study on “Quebra-Quilos,” a revolt in the hinterlands of Paraíba, Pernambuco, and Rio Grande do Norte.

Considering these developments, I explore the fine lines which existed between different forms of working-class struggle, particularly episodes of strikes, looting, and full-scale “food riots.” To do so, I primarily draw upon the evidence from two separate episodes—the first between 1917 to 1922, and the second in 1962—and argue that while the former qualified fully as a “food riot,” the second should be seen solely as a strike. The difference, I contend, lay in the active involvement of combative working-class unions in 1917-1922, which supported the use of popular violence for the purposes of realizing socio-political change. By 1962, however, formal political and economic organizations were clearly distancing themselves publicly from instances of working-class violence. A study of the “devolution” of working-class protest in Brazil over this period can, therefore, help to elucidate not only the different repertoires of proletarian political revolt but also help reveal the tightening of relations between labor unions and the Brazilian government over the first half of the twentieth century.

Tilly defined “food riots” as uprisings marked by the “collective seizure of food, often coupled with sacking the premises of the merchant” (TILLY, 2006, p. 51). This definition allows us to create a division between a full-scale uprising, such as what we might consider a “food riot,” and a smaller-scale ransacking or looting of a warehouse for the exclusive purpose of burglary. However, this may not be the most useful division, especially considering contemporary Brazil. If one broadens the view to any commuter train in suburban Rio or São Paulo, there is a chance that one will encounter marketers shouting the famous slogan: Não é caminhão roubado, é caminhão tombado (“It is not from a stolen truck, it is from an overturned truck”). Thus, one major question underscores the different scales in the seizure of property: to what extent can theft be considered the result of an organized movement? While this question is difficult to answer, it is clear that both small-scale looting and large-scale food riots were within the political repertoire by which subaltern classes confronted the economic hegemony of Brazil’s free marketplace. Although the line between plain theft and the seizure of food for subsistence can be difficult to identify, I contend that there are two instances in which the act of “looting” developed into organized resistance as urban “food riots,” and that this was primarily because the participants and leaders combined forces with full-fledged political organizations, such as Brazil’s combative working-class unions.

The first instance was in 1917 and is often considered the first general strike in Brazil. Rather than remaining contained to one single episode in 1917, however, it progressed over what is called the quinquennio rosso [“the five red years”], the five years between 1917 and 1922, which stretched from the first general strike to the official formation of Brazil’s Communist Party. During these years, mass strikes across Brazil’s urban centers were organized by a series of leftist groups—from moderate socialists (and even some positivist republicans in some locations) to radical anarcho-syndicalists—which varied from state to state. And, across these five years, there were episodes of food riots in cities like São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Porto Alegre, Recife, and Salvador, which were all unique due to their unprecedented scale and stimulus at the hands of pre-existing and centralized leftist organizations.

The second instance was in 1962, this time in search of reformas de base (or “base reforms”) during Brazil’s brief parliamentary republic (1961-1963). On this occasion the uprisings were far less centralized and cohesive than those which took place in 1917. Although the strikers raised both political and economic demands, the “food riots” repertoire was much less frequent, occurring only in the suburban region of Rio de Janeiro, the Baixada Fluminense. In this sense, the link between strikes and “food riots” was too fragile to claim any direct correspondence. However, in 1962 the effects of the riot were significant not only because workers stopped their production, but also because the upper classes recalled the significant challenges posed by the riots, strikes, and lootings from the early 20th century. So, what exactly was the connection between the 1917-1922 food riots and the 1962 strike, and what do they reveal about the repertoires of working-class resistance in twentieth-century Brazil?


1917: Assaulting the Skies and Warehouses

One main focus in this analysis of working-class revolts in Brazil rests on the change in expectations between the agents involved in the country’s labor uprisings. In the late 19th century, as is well known, food riots were common across the rural areas of northeastern Brazil. There, the combination of long periods of drought with the implementation of new regulations typical of the political economy, such as the standardization of measures at local markets, created the perfect conditions for popular revolts such as the “Quebra-quilos” and “Ronco da Abelha,” among many others. As such, the last quarter of the 19th century witnessed the emergence of an “insurgent northeast,” in which urban markets served as a constant source of tension in the countryside (MONTEIRO, 1993, p. 52).

However, this kind of rebellion, which involved raids, lootings, and rioting, was not exclusively a rural phenomenon. From time to time, even larger cities like Salvador and Rio de Janeiro witnessed similar instances of working-class revolt. In 1858, for example, rioting in the streets of Salvador began because of an unusual dispute between nuns in Santa Casa de Misericordia, but the conflict then transformed into a food riot against the liberal market policies developed by the Baron of Sinimbu, the local governor of Bahia.3

Sinimbu was an innovator in terms of Brazilian politics. He was a well-read and -traveled aristocrat who hoped to modernize Bahia’s markets, and so he changed the rules in regard to the functioning of the grain silos in the province’s capital city and allowed shopkeepers and farmers to sell their wheat at “market prices” (GRAHAM, 2013, p. 309). The response to these reforms was a popular revolt, during which the slogan queremos carne sem osso e farinha sem caroço (“we want boneless meat and flour without lumps”) was shouted in the streets. For two weeks, Salvador was filled with outbursts of street fighting and intense political repression. The result was a decrease in the mechanisms by which the markets’ poorer individuals were protected, and the limiting of the participation of Portuguese merchants in the markets of Salvador (REIS and AGUIAR, 1996, p. 136).4

Another famous “food riot” was not exactly motivated by food, but rather by transportation. In late 1879, a new tax was imposed by the Brazilian imperial government on all people who used trolley cars in Brazil’s capital city, Rio de Janeiro. Soon after the tax was established, popular rioting against the monarchy erupted, in which protestors beat up the tax collectors on the trolleys and took control of the cars themselves, in some cases even burning them to the ground. The Revolta do Vintém5 was a combination of pre-political rioting against prices and taxes and a strong opposition against the monarchical government, which created the conditions that eventually threw the Brazilian Empire into a full-scale political crisis (JESUS, 2006, p. 88).

It is possible to argue that the Revolta do Vintém was very different from the instances of food riots since food was not the main focus of popular outrage. However, the use of the term carestia de vida appeared in these transportation riots as well, contributing to a specific grammar of protest and projecting a connection between the two.6 In fact, Osvaldo Coggiola (2015, p. 56) has argued that the increase in the fare price of trolley cars in Rio during the Revolta do Vintém was understood to be equivalent with general increases in the price of food. Seventy years later, in 1947 and in 1958, the city of São Paulo witnessed sporadic riots, which were caused by the increases in public transportation fares for buses and trolley cars (DUARTE, 2005; PEREIRA NETO, 2006, p. 173-182). Despite the passage of time, carestia de vida was commonly used to describe rioters’ underlying motivations and was employed both in the militant and mainstream presses. As the newspaper Estado de São Paulo claimed during the riots of 1958, “there were limits that, when trespassed, will make any mob, no matter how orderly, become uncontrollable.”7

These city-based riots, however, were very different from those in the countryside, particularly in terms of the diversity of the participants. Urban populations were heterogenous, with foreign merchants (especially Portuguese ones) and populations of color, both enslaved and freed, participating in large numbers. These demographic differences affected the size and scope of political action, and even the outcomes of large-scale rioting were different. In a countryside revolt like Quebra Quilos (or “break kilos”), where protestors migrated from small towns to even smaller ones which overlooked local marketplaces, the rebels used their anonymity to threaten authorities and merchants alike. When they learned that imperial officials in local markets were using kilos and standardized measures, they destroyed their shops and disrupted the local fairs, menacing all who stood in their way. María Verónica Secreto called this a “moral economy of ‘sertanejos,’” referring to the inhabitants of Brazil’s semi-arid northeastern hinterlands (SECRETO, 2011, p. 29). Migration, anonymity, violence, and the strong participation of women were common in these settings. And while urban revolts also had their share of anonymity and violence, they were not equally affected by regional migration and the participation of women.8 On the other hand, larger urban revolts relied upon the greater participation of black laborers, including both enslaved and free men and women.

However, after Brazil became a republic in a military coup d’etat in 1889, urbanization and industrialization changed the panorama of the riots. In the countryside, the rebels increasingly organized themselves in religious orders which were, however, not affiliated with the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, their similarity to Catholic messianic groups affected the shape of political protest, and the repertoire of food riots thus became less common in the country’s hinterlands. In urban space, on the other hand, the growing working class began to develop its organization based on anarchist and socialist principles. In 1906 the first general strikes broke out in larger cities, but they did not yet have a nationwide range. This changed in 1917, however, with the emergence of a collection of new ideas and perspectives on labor and market dynamics.

Despite local differences in the food riots, such uprisings were characterized in the early 20th century by a move away from traditional paternalist models of subsistence and protection. In 1886, for example, the Public Mill of Salvador was deactivated and, as Richard Graham reminded us, during the drought of 1878 people fondly remembered when the mill of Bahia organized the city’s local markets (2013, p. 313).9 At the same time, previous understandings of the marketplace as a physical space were now beginning to change.10 Earlier, rebels had understood labor as a subsistence activity with some degree of domestic control. Now, they were part of a larger and more well-structured labor market, and this structural shift impacted the vocabulary they deployed when speaking out against episodes of mass hunger.

It would be superficial to establish a simplistic causal connection between a modern capitalist world based upon the doctrine of the free market and an earlier, pre-capitalist world anchored in local customs, here, since it would fail to consider wider social and political elements, including the numerous migrations which occurred between Brazil’s rural and urban centers. However, it is possible to affirm that, in response to their shifting urban contexts, the actions taken by looters in 1917 drew deeply upon new repertoires of collective organization and resistance. In the urban landscape, the question of the “exploitation” of the workforce served the newborn Brazilian workers’ movement by granting it an ideological foundation embedded within a modern vocabulary of political militancy. In other words, new social and political expectations were emerging among urban workers in Brazil, which only widened the perceived gap between the past and present and between tradition and innovation.

In terms of economic factors, Joana Dias Pereira (2014) has suggested that the cycle of “global food riots” between 1917 to 1922 was essentially motivated by a disruption in the correlation between wages, prices, and jobs, due largely to military conflicts and economic disturbances. This cycle of riots was, indeed, a global phenomenon, allowing for analogies between different food riots around the world, such as those in Russia, Germany, Italy, Japan, Portugal and, of course, Brazil. One should also remember that other Latin American countries experienced food riots during the same period, such as Argentina (BETHEL, 1993, p. 154), Mexico,11 and Chile12 (DONOSO, 2005, p. 121-145). While it is abundantly clear that workers’ agitation between 1917 and 1922 cannot be reduced to any single underlying cause, the parallels exhibited between the looting and riots of both years suggest a broader pattern at work. Nonetheless, no straightforward correlation between workers’ strikes and food riots existed between these countries. Even with their global scale, there are obvious differences in national or regional contexts, in terms of the capitalist development of each, the structure of the state, the specific forms of political power, and, of course, different traditions and innovations in the realm of political action across the subaltern classes.

Pereira’s suggestion that we must understand food riots as a global repertoire between 1917 and 1920—which I suggest we broaden to the foundation of the Brazilian Communist Party in 1922—most certainly drives historians to question whether or not the moral economy paradigm has its roots only in local contexts or if this fruitful combination of events in the quinquennio rosso (1917-1922) can somehow help develop a new transnational perspective on food riots and moral economics. Unfortunately, this is only a matter of speculation. What we know with certainty is that food riots during this five-year period evidenced a combination of a traditional repertoire of a “pre-capitalist” world, in the Thompsonian sense, and a full-fledged and internationalist working-class movement that was more revolutionary than ever and organized in new and increasingly potent ways. And Brazil was no exception in this regard. Pereira’s research has primarily examined the case of Portugal and conceptualized the food riots from a two-sided perspective: on one hand, as radical working-class agitation organized by different insurrectionary groups, and, on the other hand, as the product of strong ties of local solidarity which created the basis for a common grammar between the protesters. Inspired by Tilly and McAdam’s approach, I believe that Pereira’s framing can serve the Brazilian context as well (TOLEDO, 2017).

As Edilene Toledo has already pointed out, perhaps the most important insight from Pereira’s bipartite interpretive model is that it privileges one of the hallmark components of the “moral economies” of the 19th century: the intensity and radicality of a newly organized labor movement. At the same time, however, this analytical framing appears to reshape our understanding of the local and somewhat fragmentary impacts of the food riots and lootings, which were mostly connected to environmental crises, food shortages, and, particularly, to the breakdown of paternalistic institutions. With 1917 looming on our horizon, there is a new framework by which we can analyze these food riots: by connecting local organizations, including neighborhood associations, with global repertoires of working-class militancy, such as labor union strikes. However, even the notion of “local” changed during this cycle of structural change and proletarian struggle since “class” and “national identity” were included within protestors’ grammar of collective action, even when they spoke exclusively in terms of their neighborhoods (BIONDI, 2011). The emergence of the new labor organizations revealed that class and national identity fostered a public dialogue to some degree by interacting with a variety of other social factors, including gender and race. The interplay between these local and global connections were particularly pronounced when ordinary people experienced unprecedented food shortages.

When examining Brazilian history, one realizes that the heterogeneity of both internal and external migrations helped in developing a diversified working class. And, in 1917, workers living in Brazil’s larger cities were comprised of a significant number of people who came from both rural environments and foreign countries. This dimension allowed for the development of networks of solidarity based in regional provenance and on national identities, and is worth exploring. For example, both the strikes in São Paulo and Porto Alegre in 1917 evidenced the strong participation of immigrants from Italy, Germany, Lebanon, Poland, and more. This suggests that class and ethnic solidarity worked side by side.13 Luigi Biondi (2011) has argued, for instance, that São Paulo’s 1917 general strike originated with a workers’ committee in the neighborhood of Mooca, which not only had a long tradition of local solidarity but was also populated by a large number of militant Italian immigrants. In this sense, one could argue that both the making of the working-class movement in Brazil and the outbreak of lootings in the country’s urban centers were based not only on class-oriented organizations but also on ethnic ties which crossed over and between labor organizations.

However, if we look at the way in which looting operated on these two occasions in São Paulo and Porto Alegre, we can better understand that the level of collective organization was not as high as during the strikes in Rio. The riots and lootings were characterized by a clandestine and fast-paced organizational impetus, which matched the anonymity of the participants and the fast-paced actions of the uprisings. Warehouses, mills, stores, and storage spaces could all be targeted, but these actions also required a quick preliminary investigation of security measures which relied upon a quick-witted calculation of the force correlation between a looter “vanguard” and the guards who had been charged with protecting the targeted establishments. At same time, the attackers selected their targets by considering the establishments’ owners. For example, if the owner was identified as a greedy black-market dealer who frequently inflated his prices, he was named a “shark” and was more likely to be targeted by looters.

This all points to a fundamental component: rioters’ familiarity with local merchants was a crucial factor in the ignition of direct-action violence. At the same time, this kind of preliminary survey required a relationship of secrecy between the attackers, particularly because anonymity was so fundamental to the group’s success. In this regard, there was an important difference between rural and urban riots in Brazil. In the former, the rebels moved through the hinterlands and their anonymity stemmed from the fact that they were unknown to the local authorities in many places. In urban riots, however, looting took place at popular markets and other similar spaces. Their anonymity, therefore, depended on both the comparatively larger scale of the urban uprisings, as well as on local relationships with their neighbors, many of which often vowed to safeguard the network’s integrity in the event of a police investigation or a search.

We can observe how this operated in 1917 in the city of São Paulo. During that time, the most famous looting was committed against Moinho Santista, a wheat mill manufacturing company. The aftermath of the assault resulted in the imprisonment of one of Brazil’s most prominent anarchist figures, Edgard Leuenroth, who was accused of leading the looters in the attack. Lacking any proof of his involvement, however, the local police accused him of “inciting” the rioters and even “planning” the attacks, which was enough to put Leuenroth in jail. His role in 1917 was precisely that of a working-class organizer, defending and leading the general strike. When he was arrested, however, police cited his involvement in the Moinho Santista lootings in order to justify his imprisonment, despite his absence from the labor demonstrations. Thus, the local authorities were the first to consider the possibility that a food riot which resulted in looting was a political tactic operating in combination with the general strike. And, although this may appear simply as a frail conjecture concocted in the interest of justifying the repression of the country’s labor movement, it may lead us towards a better understanding of the connections between food riots and strikes as a working-class political strategy.

It is also possible that the police of São Paulo promoted this connection in order to temper popular opinion, for the actions of the rioters were being celebrated by Brazil’s anarchists. Ten days after the incident in the Moinho Santista company, the newspaper A Plebe defended the rioters in a particularly revealing passage:

If commerce is allowed to steal from consumers so outrageously, for the purpose of placing them in the disgraceful position of starving to death, we then advise all of our brothers in misfortune that we defend our indisputable right to live à outrance, pursuing subsistence wherever it is locked—in the grocery stores, warehouses, factories…14

In this same edition of A Plebe, the demands of the Comitê da Liga de Defesa Proletária (Committee for the Proletarian League of Defense), the main committee organizing the strike, were published, which included the organization’s support for the “immediate lowering of prices” for essential goods. Here we have the most emblematic connection between food riots and strikes in the Brazilian working-class experience. A food riot occurred and, even if it was not led by labor militants, it enjoyed their open support and defense of looting as a central component of the class struggle. In the same year Rio de Janeiro’s streets were filled with similar uprisings. In July, newspapers accused strikers of looting warehouses in Rio (CARONE, 1984, p. 189). These events confirm Toledo’s hypothesis that food riots were often used in combination with strikes in 1917.

However, if we look at the national scope of the strikes in 1917 across Brazil, we can understand that this combination did not always operate in harmony. In Porto Alegre, for instance, the largest capital in the south, the lootings were not exactly coordinated with local labor actions. As Adhemar Lourenço da Silva Jr. (1995) has pointed out, the high prices and low wages surely motivated the riots in the Porto Alegre warehouses, but there was also a strong anti-Germanic feeling across the region which drove the xenophobic atmosphere during the early phases of social unrest. These attacks against German commercial establishments influenced the government of the neighboring Province of Rio Grande do Sul to send military troops to the capital. Furthermore, while the strike in São Paulo was underway, the residents of Porto Alegre were living under martial law, which had been imposed in order to put a stop to the rioting and looting and which almost certainly undermined the labor movement’s efforts (SILVA, 1995, p. 186). Still, it was not impossible, as a few weeks later a general strike was organized in Porto Alegre as well. Although the riots were not connected directly to the trade unions and working-class movements here, they certainly helped syndicalists organize strikes which, eventually, helped undermine and weaken the repressive municipal policies they had been enduring for weeks. In contrast to the riots in São Paulo, however, the protestors of Porto Alegre were not motivated by a xenophobic agenda.

Despite these differences in timing and the degree of xenophobic passions, there was a strong dialogue between these strikes and riots in Porto Alegre. In both, the demands were based on the “lowering of prices of general and basic necessities,” “providences to avoid the hijacking of sugar in the warehouses,” the “establishment of a public slaughterhouse to guarantee meat at a reasonable price for poor people,” the “creation of street markets in the neighborhoods of workers,”15 and the “mandatory requirement that bread should be sold at a fixed weight priced by kilo” (SILVA, 1995, p. 192). So, even if the strikes were not following the riots pari passu, they held objectives in common, which guaranteed support from both sides.

Toledo, drawing upon Silva’s study, affirms that the strike in Porto Alegre was different from the one in São Paulo for other reasons as well. The Brazilian labor movement featured a number of groups which helped facilitate a kind of paternalistic relationship between themselves and the state government of Borges de Medeiros and his party, the Partido Republicano Rio-Grandense (PRR). As Silva has reminded us, many researchers who study their relationship have contended that Madeiros’ positivist political ideology was largely responsible for the PRR’s initiatives in attempting to organize the workers. Although repression was a common language among the upper classes, this paternalistic relationship may be the reason why the combination between strikes and looting was not as explicit in Porto Alegre as it was in São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro.16 However, this is simply a hypothesis and has yet to be confirmed. Nevertheless, the repression of the strike was in no way lighter than in São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro. On the contrary, one could even say that the repression was worse, given the military police’s deployment of machine guns against the protestors at Porto Alegre.

The strike in Porto Alegre was not the only one in which lootings were motivated by xenophobic sentiments. In Recife, the capital of Pernambuco in northeast Brazil, the long strikes in September were followed by strong state suppression which created a sense of political defeat among the working classes. However, two months after the defeat a wave of riots and lootings hit the capital of Pernambuco, targeting mostly German shopkeepers and industrialists and motivated mostly by Brazil’s entry into the First World War (MALATIAN, 2013, p. 151-153).

Such actions might seem rather desperate if we think in terms of “strikes” and “food riots,” and scholars have struggled to explain how riots and strikes were connected in specific cases and how they differed in others. In the case of the lootings and riots in Recife, it is difficult to tell whether they were motivated principally by an explosion of xenophobic and anti-German sentiment or by a social class-oriented political agenda. To a degree, one could argue that it is not possible to distinguish between these motivations without a further analysis of the individuals and groups involved in both the strike and the riots. However, there was clearly space for interlocution between the use of these different strategies of protest, especially when the groups in both cases based their demands on the generalized scarcity. Indeed, in Pernambuco and Rio Grande do Sul the labor movement was engaged in the struggle against hunger and poverty, which is important to keep in mind despite the cultural and political differences between the two cities. If the defeat of the strike movement was somehow on the horizon, given its intense repression by elites, it did not mean that the workers’ demands went unanswered. Although we do not exactly know how the trade unions reacted when the riots broke out in Recife, it is almost certain that individuals involved had either seen or even participated in the strikes from earlier that same year. As Richard Hoggart has aptly phrased it, “the life of the proletarian classes” is a life that is both “dense and concrete.” And density is certainly a key word in formulating a hypothesis on the interconnections between xenophobic food riots and working-class strikes both in Recife and Porto Alegre.

Beyond Porto Alegre and Recife, there were two smaller, but nonetheless important, situations in which food riots and labor strikes operated in conjunction with one another. In analyzing the situation in Ceará, a northeastern state of Brazil, Frederico de Castro Neves has pointed out that, during long periods of drought, João Thomé’s government was gravely worried about the outbreak of looting and riots among the working-classes (NEVES, 2000, p. 90). When a large strike by laborers at the Light Company in Fortaleza was organized, the newspapers in the Cearense capital sought to appease the working classes by complimenting them for their discipline and for not becoming involved in loathsome acts of wanton looting (PARENTE, 2008, p. 175). Therefore, the specter of a food riot certainly loomed on the proverbial horizon for the elites of Ceará.

The first general strike in Bahia in 1919 shows, on the other hand, that such fears could serve as a leitmotiv for workers’ negotiations. There, riots and looting had another, and somewhat unusual, role. Aldrin Castelucci has pointed out the central role of the Night Watch of Commerce (NWC)—a group of guards charged with protecting the markets of Bahia’s capital, Salvador, during periods of heightened agitation among the region’s working-classes. The NWC’s guards demanded improved working conditions and higher wages and, in a demonstration of “class consciousness,” informed local merchants that, if these conditions were not agreed to, they would not only join the strikers but also “open the way [for the protestors] to break in and loot all of the commercial properties in Cidade Baixa” (CASTELUCCI, 2005). While it is unclear if the merchants of Salvador were swayed by such militancy, it is obvious that Bahia’s shopkeepers feared the possibility of a wave of lootings and riots in the region’s capital. Ultimately, the NWC’s demands were not met and, consequently, the guards refused to suppress the strikes and the looting, which transformed the uprising into a veritable nightmare for the bourgeoisie of Salvador’s capital city.

These confrontations between workers, merchants, and local authorities demonstrate that during this fertile period of popular uprisings in Brazil, the combination of strikes and food riots was, indeed, a considerable possibility and, in some cases, a reality—if not in terms of political action, then at least in terms of political discourse. Although scholars have tended to characterize food riots and looting as less “political” than labor strikes, the combination of the three together served as a novel technique of working-class resistance against scarcity and hunger.

Research focusing on rioters’ leadership structures is still needed, and particularly on the way in which they responded to the lootings. In 1913, it is worth pointing out, the Portuguese edition of Pyotr Kropotkin’s A conquista do pão (The Conquest of Bread) was published and widely distributed via Brazil’s anarchist press. Contending that the laws which protected bourgeois property and attacked the people’s subsistence were inherently unjust, Kropotkin endorsed the seizing of “the warehouses and storages of wheat” as a legitimate form of proletarian direct action. Therefore, the anarchists may have been inspired by the writings of Kropotkin in developing the incendiary combination of strikes and food riots.

Prosopographical studies of the rioters, too, would prove useful in shedding further light on the unfolding of the combination of strikes and food riots as a working-class political strategy. I have addressed the anonymity of the rioters particularly in Brazil’s rural areas, which is one of the reasons why it is difficult to produce detailed reconstructions of the participants and their actions. However, if we consider the impressions of passersby, we might be able to better understand the composition of these complex processes. Joana Dias Pereira, for instance, observed that the role of women in the 1917 lootings in Portugal was very similar to those which occurred in countries such as Russia and Japan (FERRO, 1972, p. 35-36; LEWIS, 1990, p. 37-39). On the other hand, Glaucia Fraccaro has pointed out that while women’s participation was important in the strikes which took place in São Paulo, there are no records of women’s involvement in any of the subsequent lootings (FRACCARO, 2018, p. 77). An important source of information regarding the demographics of the rioters can be found in contemporary press reports and police registers. A search for such demographic data could help scholars further illuminate the complexities of these resistance strategies, as well as push research on the history of Brazilian protests toward an intersectional analysis which considers race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and, of course, social class.

Even if we are not yet able to reconstruct a full picture of the food riots and their participants, the rioters’ shared vocabularies, motivations, and demographics points to a collection of common expectations which existed in 1917. This notion of “shared expectations” can be understood as an extension of the relationships of domination and subjection, as seen from those at the bottom, many of whom considered the minimal promises of justice and moral obligation from their rulers to have been badly broken. Unfulfilled expectations was a shared motivation between the strikers and looters; a theme highlighted in the work of E.P. Thompson, who observed that hegemony is a fragile condition of domination and must be consistently renewed by the dominant classes. When lived realities begin to deteriorate, and parents begin to watch their children starve, it is fair to say that their expectations in regard to the social contract between themselves and the ruling classes can change both quickly and dramatically. Then, when low wages, high prices, and unemployment are combined, the desperation they engender gives rise to new and creative forms of struggle. As I have argued, the combination between strikes and food riots was one of the most creative forms of collective action in twentieth century Brazil.

At this point, it is important to leave behind the idea that food riots were part of what I have called a “pre-political” repertoire of revolts in Brazilian social history. As Toledo has suggested, this fertile combination of strikes and looting demonstrates that food riots were a useful repertoire in the hands of the Brazilian labor movement. There are, of course, challenges that we have yet to confront before we can truly understand how these strategies of working-class resistance played out. For instance, what forms of popular resistance did both leaders and looters develop as the combination of strikes and food riots was looming on the horizon? Who, specifically, was able to determine which actions were considered acceptable or unacceptable during any particular riot? Who could define the riot’s principle targets? And who, specifically, were the rioters? While additional research is required, strikes, food riots, and lootings were connected by a common ground of concerns over food scarcity and widespread hunger, which provided leaders with an opportunity to cobble together a common vocabulary against increases in the cost of living and to demand “fair prices” for workers’ labor. The rebellions of 1917, however, operated within a new global political context. Social revolution was underway in Russia and Lima Barreto, encouraged by the Russian example, openly advocated for a similar Brazilian revolution which could put an end to “these nefarious bourgeois tyrants, all ganged up cowardly behind the law to starve us to death, artificially raising the prices of basic necessities and food” (BARRETO, 1918).

By participating in strikes, riots, and lootings during the early twentieth century, one might contend, Brazilian workers discovered not only that they had the collective power to dismantle the cycles of oppression in a revolutionary manner, but also that they could challenge the tyranny of private property, especially during periods of prolonged subsistence crises. Despite these gains during the early 1900s, however, the Brazilian working class would largely abandon the food riot as a repertoire of collective political action during subsequent decades.


Interlude: An In-Between Affair

Following the revolutionary cycle between 1917 and 1922, food riots became less common in Brazil. They were also spread further apart spatially and took place in areas which were far from the country’s large cities. Even as the working-class struggle against scarcity began taking on a different shape, however, it remained an ongoing concern among Brazil’s political elites. It is important to point out, here, that while the right to strike remained at the top of the agendas of Brazil’s labor unions, the right to requisition the means of subsistence during times of scarcity was no longer on the horizon. If Kropotkin had channeled anarchist workers towards food riots and popular requisitionings in early twentieth-century Brazil, The Conquest of Bread was beginning to lose its political primacy during the post-World War I decades, especially in the wake of the renewed influence of Vladimir Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?

In a sense, it is possible to say that strikes and food riots no longer appeared in combination with one another in Brazil after the first quarter of the twentieth century, but it is difficult to define precisely when this divergence took place. It is possible, however, to define several moments when it became clear that the Brazilian labor movement was changing its political repertoire and leaving behind food riots and looting as forms of working-class resistance. In some cases, trade unions and syndicalists even urged the people to stop looting to guarantee a sense of public order, which was a far cry from the support they had previously offered protesters.

The most infamous case was in the city of Natal, the capital of the state of Rio Grande do Norte, located in northeastern Brazil. Once a relatively small coastal town, Natal became the only city briefly run by communists in 1935. Founded in 1922, the Communist Party of Brazil (PCB) soon became a revolutionary organization that would leave a lasting mark on Brazilian politics. In 1934, the PCB was engaged in the creation of the National Liberation Alliance (ANL), an electoral coalition of left-wing forces that pushed for democracy and universal suffrage. Shortly thereafter, however, the conservative regime of Getúlio Vargas declared the communists an illegal political group and banned ANL from all forums and activities of Brazil’s political life. The intense repression of left-leaning political organizations that followed, in combination with directives from the Comintern, influenced Brazilian communists to launch an uprising in the fall of 1935 which lasted for several weeks. The rebellion, however, remained restricted to small sectors of the military and was quickly dismantled by the authorities, but for a short period the city of Natal was under the control of a communist government.

Although most of the communists that rebelled were themselves members of the Brazilian military, one civilian stood out more prominently in those early days of the revolutionary government. A shoemaker by profession, José Praxedes assumed the position of Secretary of Public Supply, due largely to his remarkable leadership skills. His first act as Secretary was an official appeal to local merchants that they help normalize life in the city by restricting retail prices for basic foodstuffs, since it was clear that the newly-established communist government was unable to prevent riots and looting. Despite these appeals, however, rioters invaded and looted many warehouses in search of food provisions. According to some anecdotical accounts, these popular requisitionings marked the first ever occasions when many families in Natal ate ham (COSTA, 2015, p. 112 and 156). Considering the short life of the uprising, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro has suggested that these riots and lootings only further complicated the growing conflict between the communists and the troops of the federal government. In a matter of days, the uprisings across Natal were quashed and José Praxedes was condemned for crimes against national security.

In the years that followed, the stance of the Brazilian communists regarding public disorder did not change, and riots and lootings continued to be frowned upon among the party’s leadership. For example, in 1943, during a milk shortage in the city of Porto Alegre, furious mobs attacked milk trucks and milkmen, accusing them of hiding extra milk on their trucks. In response to these lootings, the PCB was dismantled, and its leaders were arrested, by the Vargas dictatorship (1937-1945). While the PCB did not publicly pronounce itself as a major force of political protest (PUREZA, 2009, p. 92), the communists were nonetheless still very much involved in the struggle against poverty in Brazil. In fact, the party still operated largely underground, and one of its strongest branches in the fight against food scarcity in Brazil was a group of female activists called the Housewives League, established in 1945. In later years, the League proved to be an active force that mobilized working-class women against poverty, demanded better wages, and provoked food riots in opposition to the negative effects of inflation upon the country’s working-class consumers. It even created a series of national congresses in which women from different organizations were able to assume multiple roles in the struggle for higher standards of living, as communists, workers, mothers, and housewives. They even comprised the vanguard in one of the most expressive workers’ protests of the period. In 1953, the “empty pot march” in São Paulo was headed by women who beat their pots and pans in protest of the food shortages and the politicians who had failed to address them (PEREIRA NETO, 2006, p. 246-247). In that same year, a strike involving 300,000 workers broke out in São Paulo. Despite its massive scale, however, there is not a single contemporary account of any accompanying food riots or lootings.

The explanation for why the communists did not engage in these episodes of working-class resistance rests upon the account of a crisis in Porto Alegre. In 1952 the capital of Rio Grande do Sul lay at the center of a huge demonstration organized by the PCB in protest of high living costs for the working classes. Porto Alegre was one of the few major cities where the communists had managed to elect councilmen in the brief time during which the communists were a legally-recognized political party (from 1945 to 1948). One of these councilmen was a black metalworker named Eloy Martins, who was a strong and intelligent leader and a respected orator. In his accounts of the year 1952, Martins recorded that he was organizing protests in support of higher wages and lower retail prices. At that time, Martins believed that the leadership of the PCB was heading in the wrong political direction, largely because the party’s leaders were no longer supportive of public mobilization in protest of food shortages and because they sought to link the food protests with unrelated demands that came directly from the Comintern, such as the denunciation of American imperialism in Asia. Thus, when rank-and-file members organized a massive demonstration to protest food shortages in the city, Martins received the order to engage the tribune but, rather than addressing the party’s stance on the protests, he was told to speak against the crimes of American imperialism in the Korean War.

The lack of leadership by members of the communist party resulted in widespread chaos across the city. Eyewitness accounts describe how the protest started as a real charivari, with women pounding their pots and pans with spoons and workers setting off fireworks at government buildings. Porto Alegre’s law enforcement officers simply failed to contain the masses. When the crowd arrived at the city’s port—and, specifically, at the headquarters of the city’s supply superintendant, which was ruled by the son of Getúlio Vargas, Manoel Vargas—the number of fireworks being launched against the windows of the building intensified significantly. While the militants of the Brazilian Labor Party (PTB) sought to appease the demonstrators’ frustration, there were rumors that a number of groups were already ransacking warehouses in the harbor. It was in the midst of this disorder that Eloy Martins came to an improvised tribune to deliver his speech.

Martins talked for some time about scarcity and the lack of milk, bread, and meat, but, in the end, his sense of duty to the party prevailed. He began to lay the blame for the food shortages on American imperialism and militarism, accusing the Americans of stealing Brazilian oil and stating that oil was, indeed, a crucial factor in understanding how the Americans would attack Brazil as they were doing in East Asia. In response, the PTD militants raised their hands and began to make promises that they would intercede with authorities in order to find a solution to the food shortages. The furious crowd was quickly tamed and, in his autobiography, Martins expressed his regret that the PCB’s directive had been so effective in demobilizing the situation’s revolutionary atmosphere. In his view, it was at this moment that the PCB became a joke in the bourgeois press and that it lost the masses’ allegiance (MARTINS, 1989, p. 98).

The case of Martins’ intervention serves as one of the turning points in regard to the communists’ position on food riots and looting. The PCB’s vision of social conflict was always deeply entangled with grandiloquent conjunctures and geopolitical analysis but, in this way, it also became significantly removed from the experiences of working-class Brazilians. As is clear, this geopolitical analysis was not enough to guarantee workers’ right to subsistence. With the PCB’s fall from political influence, however, the country’s Labor Party began presenting far more seductive promises, defending the regulation of markets, and criticizing the “dishonest merchants” who, they declared, were to be arrested with the rigor of law and justice.

Indeed, the Vargas government created several legal devices for protecting working-class consumers in Brazil. In 1938, for instance, Vargas himself defined the first law to protect the “popular economy,” which was updated in 1946 by a presidential decree by Eurico Gaspar Dutra. However, it was only in 1951 that the Congress and Senate passed a law which legally defined, as well as protected, the notion of “popular economy.” In loose terms, the law established a rigorous punishment against dishonest practices such as the hijacking of merchandise, the artificial increase of prices on foodstuffs, and the adulteration of goods. Vargas even sought to create a special jury committee for those crimes, demanding that labor unions send representatives to the popular jury committee in the case of any eventual “popular economy” crimes. Although the Congress ultimately rejected this, it largely accepted the broader outlines and objectives of the legislation in question.

Such a legal reform, however, was not enough on its own. Food scarcity, along with inflation and declining wages, continued to vex Brazil’s working-class communities.17 It is hard to say if the workers trusted the communists or labor activists to adequately address food shortages and hunger, but if, in some way, the communists placed their faith in the efficacy of mass protests to pressure the authorities, labor activists also trusted that the political authorities would negotiate with them. Nevertheless, both seemed very distrustful of food riots as a valid method of working-class struggle. And, of course, beyond the discussions of tactics and strategies, the problem of supplying Brazil’s urban populations with food and other basic necessities was growing ever more challenging.

In 1962, the Brazilian government unveiled The National Provisions Superintendant, which was established in order to centralize the government’s mechanisms for dealing with the recurring problem of food scarcity, transforming the notion of “popular economy” from a largely decentralized problem to a matter of public, or political, significance. The establishment of the Superintendant had largely been a response to a renewed wave of popular unrest in Brazil’s largest cities. Underlying this sense of unease among the country’s political leadership was the fear that a combination of strikes and food riots could, once again, erupt in an explosive mixture of street-level, working-class resistance.


1962: Whales, Frozen Meat, and a Baker in the Oven

During the 1950s, many among Brazil’s political leadership feared that the combination of strikes and food riots would, once again, reemerge. Murilo Leal Pereira Neto affirmed that the mood of quebra-quebra (a popular Brazilian expression for vandalism) pervaded the 1957 strike in São Paulo, during which 400,000 protesters created an “atmosphere of food rioting” without actually looting any food warehouses (PEREIRA NETO, 2006, p. 276). In fact, the main targets of these riots were public buses and trolleys in the capital. The events were seen favorably by Brazilian writer Carolina Maria de Jesus, a black woman who lived in Favela do Canindé. In her words, the way things were going in São Paulo meant that “in 1960 we would see a revolution” (JESUS, 1960, p. 126).

In 1960, however, the revolution did not come. But in Porto Alegre a communist councilman named Alberto Schroeter, who was also a leader among the city’s electrical workers, came to the tribune and affirmed that only a “popular revolution” would solve the problem of food shortages. In his words, “only the people, rebelling themselves against the state of things [referring to the food shortages], would definitively resolve the situation.” When asked if he was protolyzing for the “communist cause,” Schroeter sharply replied that he was simply noticing the reality of the state of affairs (PUREZA, 2016, p. 213). The atmosphere was, indeed, changing.

This change, however, moved at a much slower pace than that which the rioters of 1917-1922 might have supposed. Even when São Paulo was convulsed by riots in 1957 and 1958, the initial uprisings were intense but then quickly mollified as more students’ and workers’ groups began to involve themselves in the movements’ organization. Instead of overturning buses and trolleys, they simply blocked the streets and threw stones at the police. Therefore, even though popular dissatisfaction with food shortages continued to inspire public protest, the heated combination of mass strikes and riots which had played a prominent role in 1917 was no longer a shaping force by the 1960s. Whenever left-wing organizations filled the streets in protest, they remained cautious about using riots as a tool of political agitation.

It is also possible to see that in the 1950s the Brazilian working class was diversifying its repertoires of political action, producing “consumer strikes,” systematically boycotting specific merchants, and especially those with connections to the meat packing industry. Cities in southern Brazil, such as Curitiba, Porto Alegre, and Santa Maria (which had a strong railroad workers’ union) witnessed a series of principled boycott campaigns promoted by strong trade unions against butcher shops that sold frozen meat and which inflated prices (SCHINIMANN, 1981; JOBIM, 2013; PUREZA, 2016). Such consumer strikes were novel additions to the repertoire of working-class resistance during moments of dire scarcity, as the police could not force anyone to purchase meat. In 1960, in a newspaper run by the metalworkers of Porto Alegre, the syndicalists complained that the meat available in the markets was a sort of “popsicle of rotten meat,” and they complained about the immorality which had led to the malnourishing, and even risked completely starving, so many workers. Nevertheless, these boycotts were a non-systematic political weapon as people continued to purchase meat and other foodstuffs. It is not possible to affirm if prices did fall when the boycotts erupted, but it is possible to suppose that if there was some reduction in prices, it was not a permanent solution and remained susceptible to market fluctuations.

As expressions of working-class resistance, these boycotts were not always systematic, but they did incite governmental responses. In 1960, fearing that the shortage of meat would impoverish working-class families even more, the Brazilian government forged trade deals with Japanese fishing companies in order to supply urban markets with whale meat. While the Brazilian diet does not traditionally consider whale meat as a source of protein, governmental authorities and the Taiyo Fishing Company developed a marketing strategy to convince the people that whale meat was not only more nutritious and cheaper than beef but that it was also just as tasty. They even paid newspapers to publish recipes on ways to cook whale meat in traditional Brazilian dishes, like churrasco or picadinho.18 The population, however, did not warmly embrace whale meat as an acceptable, or even tolerable, dietary staple. At the National Technical School of Rio de Janeiro, for example, students fed with whale meat carried out a brief hunger strike against the principal and school administrators in protest of the alternative foodstuffs in their daily meals. For the 1962 Carnival, Max Nunes and Afonso Brandão created a samba that said, A coisa tá piorando / Tá ficando muito feia / Já estou comendo / Carne de baleia [“Things are getting worse / Much worse / I’m even eating / Whale meat”].19 As Marshall Sahlins has reminded us, although food shortages were a stark reality for many Brazilian workers, the false distinction between “material reason” and “cultural reason” cannot explain why whale meat was not savored by workers as much as the authorities expected (SAHLINS, 2003, p. 171).

However, if in the case of the whale meat the boycott was rather spontaneous, there was another, much better-organized episode in 1960 in which even shopkeepers participated. In Porto Alegre metalworkers organized an “anti-hunger strike” for 24 hours, demanding that authorities resolve the problem of food shortage. The strike was organized by some of the strongest union leaders of the time and, according to José Cézar de Mesquita, who was their primary leader, was a great demonstration of working-class unity (PUREZA, 2016, p. 201). Indeed, even the local butchers supported the metalworkers this time around and, the following year, butcher shop workers and even some owners reinforced the picket lines.20 They also asked the population to stop eating meat for the duration of the strike. Then in 1962 there was a strong “lockout” movement of butchers in the capital of Rio Grande do Sul, in support of that year’s general strike. This unusual alliance between butchers and metalworkers certainly added more fuel to the strike and to the labor movement. It is also clear, however, that recourse to food riots as a political strategy was no longer on the horizon. On the other hand, the support of merchants depended at some level on their identification with other working-class groups.

Other examples shift our understanding of this very unusual uprising in 1962. It was, indeed, a year of effervescence. A general strike was on the horizon, in which workers were demanding not only higher wages and better working conditions but also structural changes like land and urban reforms. Most likely, those strikes did not enjoy the full support of merchants everywhere. On July 7, 1962 Rio de Janeiro was in the middle of a general strike. One of the chairmen of the Retail Merchants Union, Carlos Sampaio, shouted to the press that since there was turmoil in the streets of Rio, “it was time to take the due measures in defense of our property and of our assets.” He also asked his colleagues to make some “insurances against the disturbance,” while another colleague stepped forth to say that a company called Instituto de Resseguros was already doing so.21 Therefore, it is clear that local merchants were afraid that the strikes held the potential for spinning out of control and that, in the event of their occurrences, they would need to deal with the damages caused by rioting and looting.

The only well-known case of looting in Rio in 1962 was in the peripheral region known as Baixada Fluminense. The looting first broke out in the nearby town of Duque de Caxias but soon spread to other small cities around the capital. This may have been an isolated case since, in contrast to the strikes which gained a national dimension, the food riots of Baixada Fluminense did not spread to other regions. Demian Melo, in his detailed analysis of the general strike of 1962, has pointed out that those merchants which quickly shuttered their doors and placed a Brazilian flag in front of their stores and warehouses, in an attempt to appease the crowds, were often the ones who avoided the wrath of hungry protestors. Those who did not symbolically align themselves with the rioters’ demands, however, confronted a “furious mob,” as one conservative newspaper phrased it (MELO, 2013, p. 179).

The conflict involving this “furious mob” was, indeed, much more brutal than what was expected. Although food riots were not exactly uncommon, it was unusual to see reports of casualties when they broke forth. In Baixada Fluminense, however, there were reportedly eleven deaths and thousands of injuries. In one incident in 1962, one local baker was thrown into his bakery’s oven by an angry mob of rioters, killing him. This kind of wanton bloodshed struck fear into the hearts of the upper classes, as is revealed in the statements of a conservative councilman who claimed that this was all done by “communists who are preparing for a popular rebellion” (MELO, 2013, p. 180). It was the “blood-thirsty communists,” he exclaimed, who were responsible for what had happened in Niterói. To understand whether or not this fear was well-founded, however, it is important to observe the events of that time in the suburban areas of Rio de Janeiro with greater scrutiny.

In 1963, a priest named Aníbal Magalhães Mendes organized a “land reform” rally with more than 1,300 supporters dressed in guerilla soldiers’ uniforms and armed with guns, knives, and shotguns in the Capivari Park located near Duque de Caxias. While Mendes denied the charges that he was a “communist,” it is nonetheless clear that he had been inspired by Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution.22 One might wonder whether Father Aníbal was among the leaders of the riot of 1962, and it certainly seems worthwhile to recognize that a year after the looting by the “furious mob” someone was now returning to the pressing issue of land reform in Brazil via rural guerrilla tactics in roughly the same region of the country. While such methods of resistance certainly struck fear in the hearts of Brazil’s elites, however, can this also be considered a period in which recourse to food riots combined with other forms of working-class struggle?

Indeed, if we consider the scale of the new wave of food riots across rural lands in 1962, we may be able to comprehend the changes now in motion. In Pernambuco, for instance, a large group of retirantes (i.e. people who seasonally migrated from the hinterlands of Brazil’s northeast region to nearby larger cities) fleeing the drought in the northeast looted a number of commercial shops in small cities like João Alfredo, Sertânia, and Salgadinho.23 In the northeast, elites were very afraid that the explosive combination of strikes and food riots which had been seen in 1917 could once again be put into motion by the strikers. During the general strike of 1962, for instance, the governor of Ceará, Parsifal Barroso, reportedly met with a group of individuals from the “productive classes” that asked him to take due measures against potential lootings, assaults, and riots (MELO, 2013, p. 195). In Natal, which had once been a communist stronghold, elites were more afraid than ever. They did not quite fear a repeat of the events of 1917 but, rather, those of 1935. During the general strike, they announced the encroaching ‘threat’ of communism in the bourgeois newspaper Diário de Natal. In their article, they pointed out that “Natal already experienced a mass looting in 1935. Last July, the city of Duque de Caxias suffered the same fate when 264 commercial stores were ransacked and pillaged by COMMUNISTS.”24 Even though we cannot be sure if the general strike was, indeed, combined with a wave of food riots, the fear of the elites is certainly feasible considering the public recollection of the events of 1935.

However, if the fear of the upper classes appeared to be very real, it is somewhat surprising that left-wing groups, whether communist or not, were not defending riots as a valid method of popular resistance. In the political grammar of nationalist and anti-imperialist groups among the Brazil’s left-wing, “looting” was something that the United States did against “Third World countries,” like Brazil itself. The magazine Novos Rumos (New Directions), created by the PCB, defended the riots in Baixada Fluminense as justified and argued that they were not to be understood as “looting” but rather as a “food riot,” or even as a justified “food rebellion.” The shift is not only one of vocabulary but reveals a connection that the communists had with the protesters, even though these revolts were characterized by a dangerous spontaneity of action against the authorities, police officers, and dishonest shopkeepers. Theirs was a collective movement of rage—a justified rage. However, they needed an organization, or perhaps a vanguard, to guide them towards revolutionary action.

This position can be confirmed from another article in the same magazine, which was signed by a militant named Moisés Vinhas. To him, the biggest problem the Brazilian communists faced at that time was that of organizational order, and Vinhas identified those that he considered to be the greatest enemies of the PCB: sectarianism and spontaneity, understood as the lack of the execution of plans made by the party directive.25 There was no reference to the lootings in Duque de Caxias, but the identification of spontaneity as an enemy was almost certainly intentional. Indeed, for many syndicalists the spontaneity that led to the riots of Duque de Caxias was a problem. As Demian Melo has pointed out, despite the participation of a few labor union supporters in the riots in Baixada Fluminense, the Unions’ Council of Rio de Janeiro quickly reported to the First Army that “the general strike was not connected with this wave of riots” (MELO, 2013, p. 180). Even if workers were present in the midst of the riots, the unions were eager to show that they were not involved in these incidents of working-class upheaval. Once again, further research could clarify the ways in which the syndicalists were involved in the Duque de Caxias riots and the nature of their connections to the rioters. But it is possible to affirm that, at least in discursive terms, left-wing groups and unions supported the riots but did not want to be directly involved with them. There was, indeed, an effort to separate the general strike from food riots, making it clear that the uses of the two were now viewed, at least by Brazil’s labor union leadership, as fundamentally different.

If, in 1917, looting and food riots functioned side by side as an explosive combination of political protest, in 1962 the only instance in which they operated in conjunction was in Baixada Fluminense. Nevertheless, the upper classes feared that they might explode in unison once again, despite the fact that labor union leaders were no longer followers of Kropotkin. Still, protestors continued to loot and riot, even when their labor organizations were no longer with them on the front lines. While the explosive combination of strikes and food riots was no longer an official method of working-class resistance, they continued to occur in isolation across in Brazil.


Conclusion: The Ghost of “Food Riots”

Considering the evidence presented above, the primary development in Brazil between 1917 and 1962 was not one of the repertoires of popular resistance, but rather of the combination of different forms of political protest. Widespread violence and the general anonymity of the participants remained common features in riots across the period, but expectations changed. If, in 1917, protestors resorted to strikes and food riots in combination, in 1962 the riots remained more-or-less phantoms within the minds of the country’s elites. When they did take place, such as in Duque de Caxias, the labor unions quickly denounced any associations with the rioters. This was, indeed, a significant change and central to the argument that I have presented here: namely, that by 1962, and from then onwards, riots were no longer connected to strikes or affiliated with Brazilian labor unions, who dissociated themselves from such episodes of public protest.

The workers, however, did not abandon food riots but continued to consider them a justified form of struggle against the specter of hunger. Over the subsequent years, the struggle against carestia de vida would take on different forms as the country’s military dictatorship began harshly repressing labor unionists and syndicalists via kidnapping, torture, and, in some cases, even murder. Nonetheless, a number of civil groups dedicated to the “struggle against scarcity,” such as the Catholic Housewife League (very different from the communist-supported one), which launched a “March with God for Price Stabilization” in 1965, continued to press for change.26 However, food shortages continued to be a problem. In the 1970s, Brazil’s civil opposition groups launched the Movement Against Scarcity but, during the following decade, Brazilians continued to loot supermarkets in cities such as São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Porto Alegre, Recife, and others. During the late 20th century, Brazil continued to suffer from periodic food shortages, though mostly in rural areas. Consequently, food riots became disassociated from Brazil’s urban working classes and more closely associated with the ‘backwards’ hinterlands.27

In general terms, we can say that the detachment of leftist groups from the political deployment of riots and looting was a consolidated process. Strikes required discipline and organization. The spontaneity, anonymity, and violence of popular lootings, as leaders within the PCB announced, were largely inconsistent with their program of stable, long-term resistance.

As a form of working-class protest, food riots offer an important criticism of the impersonality of the market economy, and constitute an expression of a “moral economy” which challenges the hegemony of purportedly indisputable legal standards, wages, and prices, which are, in any case, defined by the ruling classes. When faced with hunger, ordinary people tend to care very little about the underlying ‘logic’ between free market economics and any variations in retail prices.

Of course, there were significant differences in terms of the global conjunctures of food-related protests in Brazil between 1917 and 1962. The revolutionary period from 1917 to 1922—characterized by the proliferation of strikes, food riots, and looting organized in combination—was not repeated and, despite the revolutionary mood in Latin America, the protests of 1962 took on a very different form. The most meaningful change was that, while in 1917 the combination of strikes, food riots, and looting as forms of public protest was explosive, in 1962 it was more like a phantasmagoria, or a cognitive shadow looming within the collective imagination of the elites, and one that had also begun to influence left-wing groups who no longer wished to be affiliated with spontaneous instances of popular violence.

There is one last consideration to take into account in this discussion. Demian Melo has argued that the general strike of 1962 was considerably different from that in 1917 because the former achieved a national dimension, coordinated by groups all over the country, in contrast to the smaller scale of the 1917 protests, which were of a regional scope and which spread out over the course of several months. However, we can also say that in 1917 strikes and food riots were combined in a different context. In 1962, on the other hand, the fear of food riots gained a national dimension.

The idea that repertoires of political revolt can function in combination depends mostly on the character of working-class institutions. The working classes developed a handful of expectations in regard to the relationship between their labor and the State, and their actions corresponded inversely with the efficacy of the government’s responses. The repertoire of political upheaval changed, and food riots and lootings became less frequent as workers’ expectations began to change, and as their institutional bodies—particularly the labor unions and communist organizations—separated themselves from instances of violent rebellion. Nevertheless, a phantasmagoria remained, a feeling that the explosive mixture of 1917 could, once again, reemerge. Although many union leaders and communist militants claimed that they were not involved in the riots, it is clear that they still understood how the scarcity and hunger could potentially lead to such an inflammable combination. When the working classes unite, organize, and strike fear into the hearts of the upper classes, they hold a powerful weapon with which to challenge the foundations of elite hegemony.



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  1. Carestia de vida can be loosely translated as “scarcity,” but this is not a literal translation. The term connotes an idea of “scarcity” in regard to the right to life. A study on the etymological origins of the term is still needed, particularly since it was employed in newspapers by both the working classes and elites (GOULART, 2013).
  2. Brazil’s northeast served as the locus for several food riots during the late-nineteenth century. Hamilton de Mattos Monteiro, for instance, has noted that from 1850 to 1890 the country’s cities and hinterlands were locked in a near constant struggle with one another, due largely to a regional economic crisis (MONTEIRO, 1993, p. 11). Therefore, local riots like “Praieira” (1848), “Ronco da Abelha” (1851-1852), and “Quebra-Quilos” (1874-1875), to name just a few, quickly became large-scale revolts.
  3. Richard Graham (2013) reminds us that, since the War of Independence, Bahia was one of the states most strongly affected by new market regulation. The war and successive blockades deprived many people of basic needs, such as fresh meat or cassava flour, which were basic food items in periods of war. In that sense, the first Smithian economists of Brazil, according to Graham, were testing their theories in Bahia’s “laboratory.” The aftermath of these tests, exemplified by revolts in 1837 and 1858, shows us that bureaucrats in favor of the free market made their way into the establishment and created a new set of laws deregulating local markets in Salvador. Finally, they closed the Public Mill in 1886. The actions of Sinimbu can, thus, easily be understood in a context where defenders of Smithian economics were becoming the mainstream group in Brazilian local administration.
  4. According to Reis and Aguiar, Portuguese merchants were commonly accused of monopolizing the markets in Salvador. Movements like the mata-marotos (1824-1831) identified Portuguese shopkeepers as those responsible for high prices, combining lusophobia with the style and form of the food riot in Bahia.
  5. Vintém was a popular name for twenty (vinte) réis, the Brazilian currency during this period.
  6. In the remainder of this article, however, I will limit the idea of “food riots” exclusively to those riots which were connected to food.
  7. “As ocorrências de ontem,” Estado de São Paulo, Oct. 31, 1958, p. 3.
  8. Reis and Aguiar have suggested that women participated in the riots of Salvador in 1858, especially black women, many of whom sold food on the streets. While there is a dearth of extant primary evidence supporting this claim, it is nonetheless a very plausible hypothesis (REIS, AGUIAR, 1996, p. 147).
  9. Nevertheless, it is important not to romanticize paternalist forms of control or to position them so eagerly as averse to free market logic. Broadwyn Fischer (2008, p. 242-252) has argued that real estate speculation in Rio’s favelas during the 1910s was the driving force behind the proliferation of the shantytown. Traditional land rights and speculation were issues that were fiercely battled over in Rio’s courts, in which ideas of paternalism and capitalism dwelled simultaneously and sometimes even combined in a hybrid space of constant illegality.
  10. See WOOD, 1994.
  11. It is important to note that the Mexican cases of rioting and looting were somewhat different, since the revolutionary context came before the global “food riot” movement that Pereira has correctly established. See VILLAR, 2015.
  12. Before the revolutionary cycle between 1917 and 1922, Chileans experienced the largest food-related disturbances in their country’s history in 1905, with a large-scale uprising against the inflation of meat prices. See ORLOVE, 1997.
  13. There is a large bibliography on how the national identities of immigrants were a strong point of inflection in the Brazilian working class. Immigrants that came from countries like Italy, Germany, and Poland, for instance, were able to establish themselves in south and southeast Brazil as part of a strong working class. However, rural migration and emancipated slaves did not find themselves as eager to assimilate into the ranks of the working classes. This undoubtedly created divisions among the workers, but it also led to the emergence of a variety of different dialogues of struggle and affected the very notion of a unified working-class movement in Brazil. See “Nós do quarto distrito: a classe trabalhadora porto-alegrense e a Era Vargas” (FORTES, 2004); Classe e nação. Trabalhadores e socialistas italianos em São Paulo, 1890-1920 (BIONDI, 2011); and Trabalhadores dos trilhos: imigrantes e nacionais livres, libertos e escravos na construção da primeira ferrovia baiana (1858-1863) (SOUZA, 2016).
  14. “O roubo legalizado,” A Plebe, São Paulo, Jul. 21, 1917, p. 3.
  15. Street markets in Brazil are also called mercados livres or feiras livres (in which case “free” is used as an adjective). They are considered small fairs coordinated directly by the rural farmers. It remains fairly common in Brazilian cities and, despite the name’s ostensible connotations, they are not exactly based upon a “free market doctrine.”
  16. Adhemar Lourenço da Silva Jr. has argued that the PRR tried to intervene directly in the food markets as early as 1914, seeking to control the exportation of beans and meat. The result was less dramatic than was expected, but it could have helped Medeiros’ government curry the sympathy of some workers, since political intervention very often positively received during times of scarcity.
  17. Nauber Gavski da Silva (2014) conducted a long and well-documented study in which he showed that during the 1940s and 1950s the establishment of a minimum wage by Vargas was still in dispute among unionized workers. Many of them were struggling to guarantee that their wages would be sufficient in the face of rising prices. Although da Silva focused on Porto Alegre, his research is complimented by other scholars such as MATTOS, 2003, and PEREIRA NETO, 2006.
  18. “Baleia já está aí: carioca vai comer bifes ‘bossa nova,’” Última Hora. Rio de Janeiro, Jun. 14, 1960, p. 2. “A carne de baleia é igual a de boi,” Diário de Notícias. Porto Alegre, Jul. 26, 1960, p. 2. “Compare e…compre (com Mary),” Estado de São Paulo. São Paulo, Oct. 28, 1960.
  19. To see the full lyrics, see: http://cesargravier.zip.net/arch2016-03-13_2016-03-19.html.
  20. “Açougueiros denunciam marchantes,” Diário de Notícias. Porto Alegre, Sept. 19, 1961, p. 11.
  21. “Arroz do IRGA também no câmbio negro,” Diário de Notícias. Porto Alegre. Jul. 7, 1962, p. 3.
  22. “Camponeses prontos para receber Exército a bala,” Diário de Notícias. Rio de Janeiro. Jun. 22, 1963, p. 2.
  23. “Saqueada a feira de Sertânia por mil flagelados famintos,” Diário de Pernambuco. Recife. May 24, 1962, p. 3.
  24. This sentiment was very common in this newspaper during the months of July, August, and September. Although, in 1935, communists were not supporting the riots, the anticommunist groups in Rio Grande do Norte did not seem to care all that much in regard to their involvement.
  25. “Os comunistas fortalecem-se lutando pelas causas do povo,” NOVOS RUMOS. Rio de Janeiro. Jul. 20 to 26, 1962, p. 4.
  26. See BERTONE, 2016.
  27. GROSSMANN, Wilma. A seca no Nordeste: o “cheiro” da fome. 1990. No location.

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