Luiz Carlos Prestes

Luis Carlos Prestes. Art: Marcelo Guimarães Lima


Entry from the “Dictionary of Marxism in America”

Life and political praxis

Born in Porto Alegre (RS) in 1998, the son of Antônio Pereira Prestes, an army officer who participated in the republican movement of 1889, and Leocadia Felizardo Prestes, young Prestes accompanied his parents and sisters to live in Rio de Janeiro in search of of treatment for the father, suffering from a serious illness. In 1908, with the death of the father, the family went through great financial difficulties, faced with courage by Leocadia in the education of her son and his four sisters.

Orphaned as an Army officer, young Prestes, enjoying free education, enters the Military College, starting his military career at the age of eleven. A brilliant student, in 1916, he enrolled at the Military School of Realengo (RJ), continuing his training as a military engineer, completed in 1919, starting to serve at the Railway Company in Deodoro (RJ).

Promoted to first lieutenant, Prestes participated in the lieutenant conspiracy that began in 1921 and in the preparation of the uprising of July 5, 1922 in the capital of the Republic, in which, stricken with typhus, he was unable to participate. Defeated in a few hours, the movement became known as the Levante do Forte de Copacabana or “Os 18 do Forte”.

Under suspicion of conspiring against the government, the then Captain Prestes was transferred to Rio Grande do Sul with the mission of supervising the construction of barracks. His accusations of corruption in these units led the authorities to transfer him to the command of a company of the First Railway Battalion (1ºBF) of Santo Ângelo. The tenentist conspiracy continued with the objectives of: (i) deposing President Artur Bernardes, passing power to a politician who complied with the 1891 Constitution, which was then disrespected; and (ii) introducing secret voting, eliminating electoral fraud and establishing an independent justice that respected the liberal precepts enshrined by the republican regime. The program was limited, since social issues were not contemplated and its execution would be up to the military. The “tenentes” did not intend to mobilize the people.

In 1924, the “Segundo Cinco de Julho” took place – the lieutenant uprising in São Paulo, under the command of General Isidoro Dias Lopes and Major of the Public Force of that state Miguel Costa. Violently repressed by the federal government, the rebels moved to the south of the country, settling in the region of Foz do Iguaçu.

Prestes participated in the lieutenant conspiracy in Rio Grande do Sul and, at the same time, prepared the soldiers of the 1st BF to act in an organized manner in the projected uprising. In the city of Santo Ângelo, where he installed new electric lighting, he enjoyed great prestige. In September 1924, he resigned from the Army to better conduct the conspiracy in the state. The Rio Grande uprising began on the night of October 28. Initially, it had the support of a few military units and some caudillos sympathetic to the “tenentes” led by Assis Brasil, the civilian leader of the “tenentes”. Most of the rebels were soon routed by enemy troops.

Only the battalion under the command of Prestes and Lieutenant Mário Portela Fagundes, with the full support of its soldiers, moved to São Luiz Gonzaga. In this region, Prestes and Portela organized around 1500 combatants, poorly armed, but resisting the siege of 14.000 men mobilized by Governor Borges de Medeiros, with the support of President Bernardes. Due to the numerical and armament inferiority of the rebels, Prestes implemented another type of tactic, known as “war of movement”: moving very quickly, maintaining contact with the enemy in order to know his movements and pursue him effectively.

The “potreadas” – small groups of soldiers who moved away from the rebel troops to obtain information taken to the commanders – fulfilled this mission. Mobility and surprise, two important aspects of the “war of movement”, assured the rebels of breaking the siege of SL Gonzaga, the formation of the Coluna Prestes and the successful march towards Paraná, meeting the remaining companions of the uprising in São Paulo.

In April 1925, meeting in Foz do Iguaçu with officers from the São Paulo troops who, defeated by General Cândido Rondon, intended for the most part to abandon the fight, Prestes, on behalf of the victorious Coluna Gaúcha, affirmed the decision to continue the rebel movement , proposing a march through the interior of Brazil, attracting government troops and encouraging lieutenant uprisings in the coastal capitals. Part of the São Paulo officers accepted the proposal and the troops under his command were incorporated into the Prestes Column, as it would be known. Its combatants form four detachments, Miguel Costa becomes the commander, and Prestes the chief of staff of the reorganized column.

With less than 1.500 combatants, including 50 women, the Column traveled 25.000 km, crossing Brazil from South to North, from East to West, having passed through 13 states and participated in 53 combats, without suffering defeats and defeating 18 government generals. Denying government propaganda, the Column sought to do justice wherever it went, attracting the sympathy of the population with which it had contact. Due to the precariousness of their numerical contingent and available weapons, the rebels could not achieve their initial political objectives, migrating militarily undefeated to Bolivia.

Contact with the population of the interior of Brazil, during the Column tour, helped Prestes – under the impact of the extreme poverty he observed and which surprised him – to decide to dedicate himself to the study of its causes, starting to defend the closure of the march. From February 1927, in Bolivia, he begins to read Marxist works, taken by Brazilian journalists and by Astrojildo Pereira, then general secretary of the Communist Party of Brazil (PCB), who makes the first contact of that party with the “Cavaleiro da Esperança” (name then launched by the Rio de Janeiro newspaper To the left).

In Argentina, since 1928, Prestes survives from trade, facing difficulties, and works as a civil engineer. reads The capital of Marx, The State and the Revolution of Lenin and other works by Marxists, in addition to the propaganda materials of the Communist International in Latin America. Establishes contacts with the Communist Party of Argentina and with communist leaders in the continent; relates to August Guralski, the representative of the South American Secretariat of the Communist International (IC), based in Buenos Aires.

The “tenentes” continue to conspire and choose Prestes as the military leader of the “tenente revolution”. In 1929, the campaign for the 1930 elections begins, with the creation of the Liberal Alliance, an electoral coalition of the opposition forces to the federal government, whose presidential candidate is Getúlio Vargas. Opposition politicians and lieutenant leaders, attracted by Vargas' candidacy, pressured Prestes to support him. Already an adherent of Marxism and the positions defended by the PCB, Prestes broke with the “tenentes” and refused to support Vargas in the election and in the armed movement of 1930.

With the “May Manifesto” of 1930, he made public his support for the PCB's proposal of an “agrarian and anti-imperialist revolution”. His refusal to participate in the so-called “Revolution of the 30s” represented a break with the country's ruling classes, whose opposition sectors relied on his prestige and the glories of the Prestes Column to consolidate themselves in power. Prestes then positioned himself on the side of the workers, the exploited, on the side of the people, and that was how he would remain for the rest of his life.

In 1931, he accepted an invitation to work as an engineer in the Soviet Union, where he traveled with his mother and sisters. In Moscow he continued his studies of Marxism and Leninism, and developed close relations with representatives of the Communist International and various communist parties.

In September 1934, he was accepted into the PCB, which resisted his entry, alleging his “petty-bourgeois” origins. At the end of that year, anxious to participate in the fight against fascism, he traveled to Brazil, accompanied by the German communist militant Olga Benário, responsible for the security of Prestes – against whom there was an arrest warrant in the country. 

In 1935, Prestes was acclaimed president of honor of the National Liberation Alliance (ANL) – a broad democratic front in the struggle against fascism, against Plínio Salgado's Integralism, against imperialism and the landlordism. Clandestine and married to Olga, he participates in the IC's South American Secretariat, transferred to Rio de Janeiro, although he is not part of the PCB leadership. He becomes the main leader of the anti-fascist movement and the ANL which, under the motto of “Bread, Land and Liberty”, postulated the conquest of a “revolutionary national popular government”. Numerous social sectors are mobilized – and Vargas employs the National Security Law to close the entity.

A false assessment of the country's situation by the communists and ANL leaders provoked the radicalization of the movement with the outbreak and consequent defeat of the anti-fascist uprisings of November 1935, whose history was falsified by those in power with the creation of the myth that “sleeping” soldiers would have been killed by the communists during the uprising in the 3rd Infantry Regiment of Rio de Janeiro.

A violent police repression against the communists and the democratic forces was unleashed. In March 1936, Prestes and Olga were arrested. Olga, seven months pregnant, was extradited to Nazi Germany, and had her daughter in a prison in Berlin, being murdered in 1942 in a gas chamber. Prestes was imprisoned in Rio de Janeiro, most of the time incommunicado, until the April 1945 amnesty. An international campaign for the release of political prisoners in Brazil, led by Leocádia, Prestes' mother, allowed the rescue of the Nazi prison of Anita Leocadia, daughter of Olga and Prestes, and her delivery to her grandmother.

In the early 1940s, with the changes in the world situation, largely caused by the successes of the USSR in World War II, Vargas adopted measures against Nazi Germany and its allies. Prestes, still in prison, was elected in 1943 as general secretary of the PCB, and together with the leadership of the Party, he supported the new position of the Vargas government, arguing that the time had come to unite all forces against Nazi-fascism.

With the liberal redemocratization of 1945, the PCB regained legality; Prestes is elected senator for the Federal District, the most voted in the Republic, and deputy for the states of Rio Grande do Sul, Pernambuco and the DF. Along with a group of 14 communist deputies, he took office in the Constituent Assembly which, in 1946, approved a Constitution enshrining important democratic rights.

The advent of the Cold War between the two great powers (USA and USSR) had repercussions in Brazil, intensifying the persecution of communists and democratic forces. In 1947, the PCB's registration was annulled, its headquarters invaded by the police and its legal activity prohibited. In January 1948, the mandates of communist parliamentarians were annulled. Prestes and the leaders of the PCB, accused in court of being agents of Moscow, began to live and act in hiding.

The changes that took place in the country led the PCB to abandon the policy of broad alliances (which included bourgeois sectors) and betting on the electoral path, to then adopt the “revolutionary path”, understood as the “armed struggle for national liberation” – a consecrated position in the “August Manifesto” of 1950, signed by Prestes.

In 1954, the suicide of President Vargas had an impact on the PCB, whose documents accused the government of “national treason”. The PCB changed its political orientation, and in the 1955 elections it supported Juscelino Kubitschek. The communists returned to live legally, although the PCB did not manage to gain electoral registration. With the approval of the “Declaration of March” of 1958, the PCB adopted the tactics of fighting for a “nationalist and democratic government”, in alliance with sectors of the bourgeoisie considered “nationalist”. This policy is endorsed in its V Congress (1960).

In 1964, the military dictatorship – established with the coup that overthrew President João Goulart – unleashed intense repression against communists and all democrats. Prestes and other personalities have their political rights suspended for ten years. He remains clandestine in Brazil and participates in the VI Congress of the PCB in 1967, whose resolutions defend the defeat of the dictatorship through mass struggle, condemning positions favorable to armed struggle – which proved to be unfeasible in the country at that time.

In 1971, by decision of the PCB leadership, Prestes went into exile in the Soviet Union, dedicating himself to the reexamination of the Party's policy, which he had been criticizing for favoring reforms and democratic transformations within the framework of the capitalist regime, leaving aside, in practice, the revolutionary aims of the party.

In October 1979, with the amnesty for political prisoners and persecuted, he returned to Brazil and, after coming into contact with the PCB militancy, published his “Letter to the Communists”, denouncing the abandonment of the revolutionary and socialist perspective by the party leadership. . In the last ten years of his life, away from the PCB, Prestes dedicated himself to defending and publicizing his political positions with workers and youth.

Contributions to Marxism

At the end of the 1920s, when he joined Marxism and communism, Prestes was already a revolutionary – he had fought at the head of the so-called Coluna Invicta against the oligarchic power in Brazil. His first contacts with Marxism and Leninism took place at a time when the international communist movement was under the influence of the dogmatic conceptions prevailing in the USSR after the disappearance of Lenin. A “new Christian” in assimilating Marxist theory – in his own words – he chose to strictly follow the guidelines of the Communist International.

In his “May Manifesto” of 1930, Prestes evidences his adherence to the stage orientation of the revolutions in Latin America, approved by the Communist International and followed by the PCB for several decades – which would consist, in a first stage, in the “agrarian and anti-industrial revolution”. imperialist”, followed by the stage of the socialist revolution –, a conception that history would prove to be erroneous, based on the idea of ​​the possibility of developing an “autonomous” capitalism in Brazil, which, given the world reality, was out of the question.

In 1935, on his return to Brazil after being exiled for several years, living isolated in hiding and misinformed by Antônio Maciel Bonfim (codename Miranda), then general secretary of the PCB, Prestes followed the party's guidelines of preparing for an armed takeover of power. , considering that there is a “revolutionary situation” in the country – which actually does not exist. His 5 “Manifesto de 1935 de Julho” expresses this overestimation of popular mobilization and the preparation of the PCB for an armed uprising.

In 1938, incommunicado in prison, in clandestine correspondence with PCB leaders, Prestes, although he agreed with the policy of “National Union”, even with Vargas, in the fight against Nazi-fascism, expressed his repudiation of the abandonment in the party documents of the “ revolutionary program of the party”, condemning the “unconditional support” to Vargas – declared by the leadership of the PCB, from then on.

The years in prison were used by Prestes to deepen his readings in various areas of human knowledge, including philosophical writings. Without access to Marxist literature, he privileges the reading of works such as those of the philosophers Diderot, Hegel and Feuerbach. In letters to his family, he records his knowledge and deep assimilation of the materialism of Diderot and Feuerbach, as well as the Hegelian dialectic – in addition to the turnaround produced by Marx, while criticizing Comte and positivist philosophy.

In the “1950 Manifesto” and in the 1958 “Declaration of March”, Prestes ratifies the thesis of the revolution in two stages (still present in the PCB), but warns against the danger of a “reformist tactic, which would put us in the wake of the bourgeoisie ” (1958). It is then that the critical review of the PCB's political orientation begins, which would become more pronounced during the debates of its Sixth Congress, and was recorded in a document of April 1969, unpublished at the time, addressed to the party leadership and rejected by it.

From 1971 onwards, during his exile, he produced a considerable number of documents, articles, speeches and interviews in which he recognized the profound transformations that occurred in the Brazilian capitalist system, with the emergence of national and foreign monopolies, which, articulated with the State and the latifundio, came to dominate the main sectors of national life. Faced with these transformations, he defends the replacement of the staged thesis of the Brazilian revolution by a policy to combat national and foreign monopolies, and the latifundium, whose success could initiate a period of transition to the socialist revolution, which he calls “new democracy” – a democracy that would ensure “broad freedoms for the people, an economic, political and social democracy”. He argues that the conquest of an anti-monopoly, anti-imperialist and anti-landlord power would represent “a decisive step towards socialism”.

During his exile and after his return to Brazil (1979), Prestes insisted on criticizing the position of the PCB leadership – of fighting for the country's return to bourgeois democracy prior to the 1964 coup. ”, which considers the social interests of workers. Such positions were enshrined in his “Letter to the Communists”, of March 1980, in which he also reveals the concern – which he maintained in his last years of life – with the formation of a revolutionary party capable of putting into practice the political orientation he had adopted. proposal.

During this period, he made pronouncements denouncing the redemocratization process that had taken place in Brazil – a transition controlled by the military (who maintain military power, which is even recognized in the 1988 Constitution), coexisting with the presence of the National Security Law and, as he states , with “all the fascist rubble”.

Comment on the work

Luiz Carlos Prestes had almost no books edited in his lifetime. His documents, articles, speeches, interviews are mostly published in leaflets, brochures, magazines and books by different authors, and many of his texts are already available on the web (,, .

Among his most important writings, the following stand out: “Manifesto de Maio” (1930), included in the book The About Column, by Anita L. Prestes, in which the author proclaims his adherence to the program of “agrarian and anti-imperialist revolution” defended by the PCB; “Manifesto of July 5th” (1935), published in Prestes and the social revolution, by Abguar Bastos, in which he calls for an assault on power, raising the slogan of “all power to the National Liberating Alliance!”; “National Union for Democracy and Progress” (23/5/1945, brochure), in which he addresses the theme of “National Union” of all democratic forces against fascist threats; “How to face the problems of the Agrarian and Anti-Imperialist Revolution” (undated, brochure), in which, during the PCB's period of legality (1945-1947), it deals with the political tasks to be undertaken to advance the Brazilian revolutionary process; “Organizing the people for democracy” (15/7/1945, brochure), speech delivered in São Paulo in defense of democracy; “The Word of Luiz Carlos Prestes” (26/3/1945, brochure), his first interview after leaving prison, in which he highlights the importance of democracy for the communists; Current problems of democracy (1947), collection of documents by Prestes (from prison and the PCB in legality) published as a book; “August Manifesto” (1950, brochure), PCB document signed by Prestes, in which the people are called upon to take up arms against the “government of national treason” (by Eurico Gaspar Dutra); “Declaration on PCB Policy” (brochure, 1958), PCB document signed by Prestes, in which the abandonment of the “August Manifesto” policy is recorded and a peaceful development for Brazil is proposed; “Unpublished text from 1969”, included on the Instituto Luiz Carlos Prestes website, in which he criticizes the policy approved at the VI Congress of the PCB (1967); “How I arrived at communism” (Mar/Apr. 1988, magazine Culture Voices), an article written in 1973, in which he takes stock of his life; letter to the communists (1980), correspondence published as a book in which the author seriously criticizes the Central Command of the PCB, breaking with this party instance; “A power above others” (28/7/1988), article published in the newspaper Press Tribune, in which he denounces the consecration of military power in the 1988 Constitution.

Other titles he authored are: “Why the communists support Lott and Jango” (mar. 1960, brochure); “Aspects of the struggle against subjectivism on the 49th anniversary of the PCB” (2/4/1971, article in Studies Magazine, no. 2, clandestine publication of the PCB); “The program seen from exile (interview by Luiz Carlos Prestes)”, from 1978, in the book the fifth star, by G. Bittencourt; “Proposal for discussion of an Emergency Solutions Program against Hunger, Starvation and Unemployment” (1982, brochure); “Speech in Havana at the Conference on the External Debt” (Jul. 1985, brochure); “Prestes com a Palavra” (1997), texts in the book by D. Morais, with this title; “Documentos de Prestes” (2020), in the book by G. Rolim, Heritage, hope and communism.

* Anita Leocadia Prestes is a professor of history at UFRJ. Author, among other books, of Luiz Carlos Prestes: a Brazilian communist (boitempo).

Originally published on the Praxis Nucleus-USP


BASTOS, Abguar. Prestes and the social revolution. So Paulo: Hucitec, 1986.

BITTENCOURT, Getulio. The Fifth Star: How to Make a President. São Paulo: Bookshop Edit. Human Sciences, 1978.

MORAIS, Denis (org). About to speak: a selection of the main interviews with the communist leader. Campo Grande: Letra Livre, 1997.

PRESTES, Anita Leocadia. The About Column. São Paulo: Paz e Terra, 1997.

_______. Luiz Carlos Prestes and the National Liberation Alliance: the paths of the anti-fascist struggle in Brazil 1934/35). São Paulo: Brasiliense, 2008.

_______. A Brazilian epic: the Prestes Column. São Paulo: Popular Expression, 2009.

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_______. Prestes Campaign for the Liberation of Political Prisoners in Brazil (1936-1945): an exciting story of international solidarity. S. Paulo: Popular Expression, 2015.

_______. Luiz Carlos Prestes: a Brazilian communist. S. Paulo: Boitempo, 2015.

_______. Olga Benario Prestes: a communist in the Gestapo archives. S. Paulo: Boitempo, 2017.

_______. Living is taking sides: memoirs. Sao Paulo: Boitempo, 2019.

ROLIM, Gustavo Koszeniewski (org). Heritage, hope and communism. São Paulo: Anticapital Struggles, 2020. 

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