Anarchism was an influential contributor to the social politics of Brazil's Old Republic. During the epoch of mass migrations of European labourers at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, anarchist ideas started to spread, particularly amongst the country’s labour movement. Along with the labour migrants, many Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and German political exiles arrived, many holding anarchist or anarcho-syndicalist ideas.
Some did not come as exiles but rather as a type of political entrepreneur, including Giovanni Rossi, who founded an anarchist commune in 1889, named the colony of Cecília, in the interior of Paraná state. The experiment only lasted a few years, but at one point consisted of 200 participants, mostly Italian migrants with urban labour backgrounds who had difficulties learning to work the land.
Anarchism or anarcho-syndicalism was the dominant ideology underpinning the Brazilian labour movement at the beginning of the twentieth century. Syndicates and labour federations were erected, mainly pressing for shorter workdays, better working conditions and higher salaries. Various strikes, i.e. in the harbour of Santos and among railway workers, were inspired by anarchist sympathies. In 1906 the first nationwide Brazilian workers' congress was held, and from then on the May Day celebrations, with prominent anarchists delivering speeches, started to attract large crowds. The second national workers' congress in 1913 was initially meant to be a Pan-American anarchist congress, but only two Argentinians showed up. The labour agitation eventually culminated in the large strike movements of 1917 and 1919, biggest in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, but echoed throughout the country.
Alongside the labour federations, anarchist daily and weekly newspapers were also issued; additionally, educational centres, theatres and elementary schools were founded. In the nineteenth century some of those newspapers were in Italian and a few were in Spanish and German, but at the turn of the century most were in Portuguese. A Plebe was an important one, but there were many more, issued in virtually any state capital of Brazil.
The educational centres, schools and theatres founded by anarchists helped to draw attention to the issue of illiteracy in Brazil. This was a point taken up by various other groups in society, such as social Christian movements, inspired by Catholic social teachings, and various politicians aiming for containment of the social question or for popular support.
Anarchists, anarcho-syndicalists and socialists of various kinds were generally much less fragmented in Brazil than in, for example, Italy. However, the many pamphlets and essays in anarchist newspapers show that there were fierce debates about ideology and strategy between adherents of different schools. The (mostly moderate) socialists rejected strongly the position of the emerging 'social(ist) Christians' on strikes and labour unions, around 1900. Ongoing debate, especially on the necessity and danger of (central) organisation, between anarchists, libertarians and syndicalists filled the labour-based newspapers.
In 1922, some militants who had been active in anarchist circles founded the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB), influenced by the success of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and by the feeling of failure, in appeal and unity, of the syndicalist workers' federations. Among them, Astrojildo Pereira, Octovia Brandão, Bernardo Canelas, Jose Elias da Silva. Others, like José Oiticica and Edgard Leuenroth, stayed loyal to anarchist principles. The party was not recognised as communist by the Comintern, however, being accused of being a doctrinal mess, still retaining much anarcho-syndicalist influence.
Repression of the anarchist movement, and of the labour movement in general, was very harsh. The violent police repression of strikes caused many casualties. Also, newspaper and union offices and even children’s schools were burned down. Furthermore, anarchist agitators were regularly arrested, and, if not Brazilian-born, exiled. Under the government of Artur Bernardes even concentration camps and torture centres existed, of which the most infamous was Clevelândia, in Oiapoque, at the border with French Guyana.
While some argue that the anarchist movement had already lost out against the communists by the 1920s, others, like Edgar Rodrigues, maintain that the anarchist movement actually kept growing during most of the 1920s, until the repression by Bernardes. In any case, the military populist movement, known as tenentismo eventually won out. The repression by the Vargas regime, along with the introduction of the Mussolini-inspired state-led union structure in the 1930s, proved the death-knell of the Brazilian anarchist movement.
Some traces of anarchism remained, notably the Anarchist Study Centre in Rio de Janeiro led by prof. José Oiticica, which had to go underground after the 1964 military coup. In the 1970s a small anarchist newspaper existed in Bahia, called "The Enemy of the King" (Portuguese: O inimigo do rei), but the movement would never regain the strength it had at the beginning of the twentieth century.