Chris Harman


Allende walks the tightrope

(November 1971)

From Socialist Worker, 20 November 1971.
Reprinted in In the Heat of the Struggle, London 1993, pp.70-71.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

TWELVE MONTHS AGO the presidential election in Chile was won by a ‘left winger’, Salvador Allende. Immediately all manner of people claimed that he would be able to prove wrong the classical teachings of Marxism and introduce socialism ‘peacefully’, by parliamentary means.

Communist Parties, like the British one, greeted his victory as confirmation of their own doctrine that talk of ‘violent revolution’ is out of date. And the professional parliamentarians of the Tribune variety reacted in the same way.

At first glance it might seem that the last year has born out these optimistic predictions. For all sorts of reforms of immediate benefit to the mass of Chilean people have been granted. Wages have been increased by about 30 percent (although to some extent this is to compensate for price rises of 30 percent in 1970). House building plans have been stepped up enormously.

Every child gets a minimum of one pint of milk a day. So far 100,000 peasants have been given land that previously belonged to Chile’s 600 big landowning families. And revolutionaries imprisoned under the previous government have been freed.

For the workers and peasants of Chile such reforms are to be welcomed. But they do not mean that the Chilean ruling class’s power has been quietly done away with. Throughout history ruling classes have been prepared to grant reforms to the masses – particularly when faced with movements that might threaten their own power.

Central to Allende’s strategy of ‘peaceful change’ in Chile is the idea that nothing needs to be done to alter the basis of control of the state.

Before his election as president was ratified by parliament, Allende signed an agreement with the middle class Christian Democrat Party in which he undertook not to change any of the key personnel running either the civil service or the armed forces. He has kept scrupulously to that agreement.

Both Chile’s 40,000-strong army and its 20,000-strong heavily armed police force have a long and bitter record of viciousness against the mass of the population. For instance, when there were strikes in 1967 six people were shot dead and dozens wounded by the police. Yet those responsible for such actions remain in control of the forces.

The only change introduced by Allende in this area was to disband the 1,000-strong special riot police – a mere twentieth of the total police. When top army officers were implicated in the murder of one of the few leading generals who sympathised with Allende, the president allowed the supreme court to stop him taking any action. The court is stacked with representatives of the old order.

Instead of attacking the power of the generals, Allende has sought to persuade them that he is acting in their interests. The level of arms spending – 20 percent of the total government budget – has not been reduced. And army officers have been encouraged to participate in the running of the economy.

While easing the fears of the representatives of the traditional ruling elite, Allende has done nothing to increase the real power of the working class in Chile. He has steadfastly resisted all demands that the workers be given arms. Workers are allowed to ‘participate’ in the management of nationalised concerns – but only as a minority, with majority control firmly in the hands of the old state officials.

The police have been used to prevent moves by peasants to divide the land of the rich themselves. Allende has spoken out on several occasions against workers’ takeovers of factories or offices. And under the so-called socialist government ‘the authorities have passed legislation that increases the penalties for violation of property rights’.

All this means that even if Allende wants to, he cannot take any action that goes beyond what the middle-class Christian Democrat Party and the old controllers of the state machine want. That is why in recent weeks he has made promises to them that he will leave considerable sections of the economy under private control and will keep a close watch on the actions of the ‘extreme left’. He has also made it clear that the period of reforms that favour the workers is past. At a rally to commemorate his first year in office he called upon the workers to show ‘discipline’ and to ‘limit wage claims’, and he criticised workers who have been occupying the premises of a US-owned bank.

A situation is being created in which Allende can no longer hope to satisfy the owners of industry (including those middle class democrats who exercise their ownership collectively through their control over the state) and the working class. He will have to choose to side with one or the other.

But one side is armed, the other not. And Allende shows no inclination at all to break his pledges to the middle class of a year ago not to ‘interfere’ with the state machine.

There is only one way in which that sequence of events can be prevented in Chile. A strong, genuinely revolutionary force has to be built up among the workers that is prepared to fight to smash the state machine and to overthrow Allende from the left.

The revolutionary groups in Chile – in particular the largest, the MIR – are beginning to see this. The leader of the MIR, Miguel Enriquez, has spoken out publicly in support of such a perspective.

The trouble is that in the past Chile’s revolutionary groups have directed their work towards the poor peasants, the students and the unemployed slum dwellers, while leaving the organised working class in the factories to the almost exclusive control of the parties that support Allende. But in a country like Chile where 60 percent of the population live in towns, it’s the organised working class that can hold the key to the future.

Last updated on 28 February 2010