Edgard Leuenroth And The 1917 Strike

Whenever Edgard Leuenroth's activities as either a working class militant or anarchist were invoked, reference is always made to the general strike in São Paulo in 1917 which brought all trade and industry in the city to a halt. Whenever that general strike is mentioned, Edgard Leuenroth's name is always closely linked with those events. The reason for the close association is that he was regarded as solely responsible for that strike which struck panic into the employers and the State itself. In reply to one such allusion, Edgard Leuenroth sent the following letter to the Estado de São Paulo newspaper:

'Having been mentioned by name in your Notes and Information section on the 2nd of this month apropos my participation in the 1917 general strike, I find myself obliged to go public in order to offer some clarification for the sake of the historical truth regarding the incident alluded to. (…)

Let me say, before anything else that the 1917 general strike cannot in any wise, no matter how it is viewed, be compared with other movements that transpired as manifestations of the proletariat.

Absolutely not! The general strike of 1917 was a spontaneous movement of the proletariat without direct or indirect interference by anyone. It was an explosive demonstration befitting the prolonged period of tortured existence experienced by the working class at that time.

The rising costs to the working people of basic necessities were matched by the inadequacy of wages; the usual chances for pressing home legitimate claims for vital improvements to the situation were curtailed by the systematic police backlash; workers' organisations were relentlessly attacked and obstructed in their work; police stations were stuffed to overflowing with workers whose homes had been raided and ransacked; the slightest attempt at assembly by workers drew down brutal provocation by the police. The reaction's most hateful procedures were let loose. The climate among workers was one of uncertainty, turmoil and anxiety. The position was becoming unsustainable.

The news that a worker had been murdered near a textile factory in O Bras was taken as an affront to the dignity of the proletariat. It made a violent emotional impact that shook everyone into action. The funeral of this victim of the repression was one of the most impressive ever witnessed in São Paulo. Starting from the Rua Castano Pinto in the O Bras district the cortege snaked like a human sea down the length of the Avenida Rangel Pestana as far as what was then the Ladeira de Carmo towards the city, in the midst of an imposing silence which had all the features of a warning. The main city streets were packed. The police tried in vain to seal off the street intersections. The crowds forced a passage through their lines and carried on their determined way to the graveyard. The graveside orations heard the speakers railing indignantly against the reaction.

On the way back from the cemetery, part of the crowd held a rally in the Praça da Sé; the remainder made its way through O Bras, as far as the Rua Caetano Pinto, where, outside the family home of the murdered worker, another rally was held. The precise details are vague but excitement swept through the crowd near the Avenida Rangel Pestana. A bread cart was attacked. This incident was the spark that triggered the powder-keg. It seems to have served as an example and as an incitement for the same thing to happen in many parts of the city. This happened with a lightning speed as if some extraordinarily effective message was being relayed around every section of the population of São Paulo. Factories and offices emptied as the streets filled with people who spread out excitedly in every direction. There was further intense reenactment of the bread van raids, with grocery stores, food stores and warehouses, etc. coming under attack.

Work in São Paulo ground to a halt, giving way to a popular upheaval without precedent in the city's history. Then the police stepped in. Clashes with the crowd began. There were casualties on both sides.

The workers could not gather together to arrive at resolutions. Each union issued its schedule of demands. Most of them overlapped one with another. But concerted joint action to agree some common objective proved impossible at the time due to the impossibility of holding union meetings.

It was at this point that the Proletarian Defence Committee was established as the result of a clandestine meeting of militants from a variety of trade unions. It was not set up as a leadership body issuing instructions. Its task would be to serve as a liaison body coordinating the demands of excited workers bereft of their trade unions and their federal organs. In keeping with this, its first move was to consolidate the demands common to all trades (spelled out in their bulletins) into a single schedule; those demands had been scrutinised by the workers' organisations prior to their prohibition. Among other things, these common demands included an 8-hour day, pay increases, rent reductions, regulation of female and child labour and improvements to workplaces. At the head of these demands were the demand that the right to organise and the right of assembly be observed and that jailed workers be freed immediately. To these would be added the demands specific to each particular trade. Although police surveillance was being enforced most rigorously, this schedule from the Proletarian Defence Committee received maximum distribution among the striking workers.

The situation was becoming increasingly grave with the clashes between police and workers. The Proletarian Defence Committee managed to surmount all sorts of difficulties and held hurried meetings in various locations around the city, sometimes within earshot of gunfire nearby. A meeting of the workers was becoming vital if any definitive resolution was to be arrived at. So the question arose of a general meeting. But how? And where? How would they get around the problem of the police cordons? The increasing gravity of the situation made one essential however. The risks that the workers were running was turning into the bloody reality of police raids on every district in the city, with countless workers (whose only offence was that they had demanded their right to survive) falling victim to the reaction.

That meeting went ahead. The most appropriate location was the O Bras district of the city where the strike had begun and it was held within the huge confines of the old Moóca horse-racing track. The spectacle of the populace of São Paulo gathered there and fretting about the serious turn of events defies description. From every part of the city streams of people made their way in masses towards the venue which had long been used for displays of conspicuous wastefulness, in a part of the city swathed in the smoke from factories that just then were empty of the workers now assembling there to assert their incontrovertible right to a better standard of living. This is not the place to go into a description of how that meeting proceeded. It is regarded as one of the biggest recorded demonstrations in the history of the Brazilian proletariat. Suffice to say that the enormous crowds resolved the strike would end only when their demands, as encapsulated in the schedule from the Proletarian Defence Committee, were met. The end of the meeting displayed much the same features as its beginnings. The crowds lined up in a number of columns that made their way through the city streets back to their home districts. The most prominent militants kept to the inside of the spontaneously formed processions. It was discovered later that a number of arrests had been made in locations far from where the meeting had been held.

At this point word reached the Proletarian Defence Committee that some journalists had come up with the proposal for a meeting between a journalists' delegation and the Committee. The invitation was passed on by the managing editor of O Combate, Nereu Rangel Pestana. A meeting was arranged. Committee members arrived for the meeting with assurances that they would not be arrested, assurances given to the journalists by the state president. The premises selected were the editorial offices of O Estado de S. Paulo, located at that time in the Praça Antonio Prado. The journalists' panel was made up of representatives from the city's daily newspapers and the Proletarian Defence Committee was made up of the following: Antonio Candeias Duarte (shopkeeper), Francisco Cianci (lithographer), Rodolfo Felipe (sawyer), Gigi Damiani (painter and director of the libertarian La Battaglia newspaper), Teodoro Municeli (director of the socialist Avanti newspaper) and Edgard Leuenroth (director of the anarchist newspaper A Plebe and secretary to the Committee).

Their first meeting looked at the schedule of workers' demands tabled by the Proletarian Defence Committee, which the journalists' panel was charged with passing on to the state government. The second meeting got off to a delayed start because of the arrest of two of the members of the Proletarian Defence Committee as they were leaving the editorial offices after the first get-together. There would be no accommodation if those two were not immediately released. This decision was passed on to the state president. This was granted and the pair were brought to the editorial offices and a short meeting went ahead, the government not having delivered its own resolution yet.

The decision to grant the workers' demands was passed on through the Journalists' Commission, with the rider that workers arrested during the strike were already being set free. Workers' rallies were held in several districts around the city and decided upon an immediate return to work which began the following day. Work resumed in São Paulo. The city returned to normal, with just a lingering memory of the victims who had left homes in mourning.

Not long after that, I was jailed. So began my odyssey through the police stations, the object being to dodge the 'habeas corpus' orders presented when I was moved to the Public Jail, today's House of Detention. After six months I was brought for jury trial, on the nonsensical charge of having been the psychic-intellectual author of the July 1917 general strike. I was unanimously found not guilty, after two adjournments, partly because I had as my defence counsel, not just Dr Marrey Júnior but also the great criminal lawyer Dr Evaristo de Morais. After a while the news broke that some working class militants had been deported to countries abroad.

From Dealbar (São Paulo) 17 December 1968. On the web-site of the Arquivo Edgard Leuenroth, University of Campinas, Brazil.

From Against All Tyranny!: Essays on Anarchism in Brazil by Edgar Rodrigues, Renato Ramos and Alexandre Samis. Translated and edited by Paul Sharkey.

From: Dealbar (São Paulo) 17 December 1968. On the web-site of the Arquivo Edgard Leuenroth, University of Campinas, Brazil. . Translated by: Paul Sharkey.