Much Brazilian labor history of the past couple of decades has been produced in the context of a vigorous debate about the proper framework for understanding working-class politics during the period of Getúlio Vargas’s influence, especially the democratic stretch between 1945 and 1964. Is it best described as populism or trabalhismo? In some ways, the debate has felt stilted, with both sides claiming allegiance to a Thompsonian vision of working-class experience and repudiating a simplistic model of charismatic leaders manipulating credulous masses. Disagreement is in the details. Should the term “populism” be discarded purely because of the freight of old usages? Does the “trabalhista pact” present a reasonable alternative or an even more totalizing but nationally specific concept?

In his formidable book Nós do quarto distrito, Alexandre Fortes does not dwell on polemics, though his conclusion offers an elegant summary of...

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