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International Socialism, April/May 1971


Juan Iver



From Survey, International Socialism, No.47, April/May 1971, pp.8-12.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The election of Allende as president of Chile has been greeted by many people as opening up the possibility of a new, peaceful road to socialism in South America. But what are the real possibilities open before this latest experiment with the ‘peaceful road’?

The cynical statement ‘aqui no pasara nada‘ (nothing will happen here) by an allendista Chilean intellectual, summarizes the incapacity of the newly elected Allende regime to grapple with the concrete issues of Chile’s social conditions. Allende came to power promising that the foundations for socialism were going to be laid by his presidency. At the same time he emphatically stated that he wouldn’t lead the country ‘to Communism’. He had previously explained that the program of the Unidad Popular (UP – Popular Unity, his coalition ) wasn’t a socialist or communist program.

To be sure, one shouldn’t read too much into the election of a coalition which calls itself ‘socialist’ even in a reformist sense. With its parliamentary traditions, Chile has had Popular Front regimes before (for example, the 1938 Aguirre Cerda government) and they certainly didn’t lay the foundations for socialism in any way. If Allende won in the 1970 elections, it was because bourgeois parties, the Christian Democracy (PDC) and the National Party, were unable to present a bloc and both were, anyway, thoroughly unpopular in the eyes of the workers, intelligentsia and poor peasantry. Allende, who got 36.3% of the votes, didn’t get an absolute majority, and the percentage of his 1970 votes wasn’t that much higher than in 1964, when he lost the elections to Christian Democrat Frei.

Those who voted for Allende and his UP voted because his program of reforms hadn’t been tested and therefore hadn’t lost credibility in the eyes of the Chilean electorate. In reality, the Allende program is not radically different to that of Tomic (pronounced Tomish), the Christian Democrat candidate who obtained 27.8% of the votes. What differentiates them is that the Christian Democracy was in power for 6 years and had proven utterly incapable of carrying forward even a minimum part of its radical proposals, many of which were inspired by the Alliance for Progress.

The Frei Period

Frei’s Christian Democracy had come to power in 1964 as the wonder girl of the ‘revolution in liberty’. This girl, however, lost prestige when she shot miners, peasants and instituted a special mobile police force to crush leftist students. She also showed that her vaunted ‘liberty’ meant in fact entreguismo (surrender) to fat latifundists, slim-fitted CIA agents and Chilean bourgeois, who in turn gave funds and ideologically controlled the Christian Democracy’s government and participation in congress.

Under Frei’s presidency, the 1964 figure of 300,000 unemployed rose steadily; inflation as well, by more than 30 per cent a year. The ratio of 6 doctors per 10,000 inhabitants remained, as did the 20 per cent rate of illiteracy. Only literate citizens over 21 years old could vote, which meant excluding more than half of the Chilean population.

Frei’s agrarian reform was a complete fraud. According to a 1965 commentator, Frei ‘... promised that 100,000 peasants would receive land in 5 years. The PDC proposed that nobody "individual or institution", should own more than 80 hectares of irrigated land, or land worth more than 25,000 dollars.’ [1] The results were different. Only 18,600 peasants had received land by 1969.

In 1969 there were still fundos of 5,000 hectares and haciendas of 100,000 hectares. The 600 Chileans who controlled 60 per cent of the arable land were still there; Frei’s little flirtings with ‘reform’ only made them roll with laughter The 600,000 poor landless peasants, many of them bound to the latifundia through slave labor (’payment in kind’), and the agricultural workers, had no time for such humour. They were near starvation levels. Chile’s peasantry has one of Latin America’s highest infant mortality rates.

When the Christian Democracy tried to ‘Chileanise’ the American owned copper mines it became a mere ‘junior partner’ obliged to pay millions of dollars in long term compensations, a fact which left it open to vicious attacks from the left nationalists.

Chile, with a population of 10 million, has to expend 150 million dollars annually to overcome its food shortage. A study made in 1964 showed that if Chile’s full agrarian and sea resources were used, it could easily feed 80 million people. Needless to say, Frei’s program didn’t even scratch the surface of Chile’s chronic, uneven and loathsome backwardness.

If a conservative national consensus had taken Frei to power in 1964, he soon began to loose his constituency. The Catholic University became a bastion of leftism, while public employees went on strike for higher wages and parity with other public concerns. The economist Jacques Chonchol, the main prop of the PDC’s Agrarian Reform, resigned and went over to the Allende opposition, alleging that Frei’s agrarian program was a fiasco; worker priests in the slums and poblaciones callampa (squatters’ tenements) became furious with the Church hierarchy, a staunch supporter of PDC’s morality and profits. Even the judges and other judicial personnel became disgusted and went out on a 48 hour strike, the first of its kind in Chile. If religious and secular druids were becoming restive, one can imagine what was being felt by the great masses of the oppressed! Frei’s almost daily babblings on the TV screens were not only boring but became repugnant to workers and clerks coming home from a wretched day of overtime, rotten transportation and undernourishment.

This collective hatred and restlessness grew by leaps and bounds in 1967-68, and Allende was able to capitalize on it. Frei, a philistine with Kennedy-Bonapartist deliriums, tried to repress these sentiments with brutality. There were massacres of squatters in Puerto Montt, and in the November 1967 general strike the police had killed six people and wounded dozens. ‘It is I who decide the pace,’ he screamed. The MIR (Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria, or Movement of the Revolutionary Left) began escalating its bank expropriations in 1968-69 and had many shoot-outs with the police. MIR militants recognised that they could hide in the squatters’ tenements around Santiago, Chile’s capital city of three million people, when escaping after an action. The squatters and unemployed barricaded themselves and didn’t permit the police to get in. Some of these slum neighbourhoods adopted names such as ‘The Lenin tenement’ or names of anniversaries of massacres or actions, such as 26 de enero. The MIR became a radical spokesman of the squatters’ land takeovers, and totally supported those actions. Allende disassociated himself from all this, and his coalition began to reconstruct patiently its base committees, the so-called comites de Unidad Popular, (Committees of Popular Unity) which were originally formed for the 1958 and the 1964 elections, on a purely electoral basis.

Allende’s Victory

These facts help explain Allende’s victory. The mass of the population was tired of the Christian Democrats’ ‘reforms’ -it wanted a basic reform of Chile’s social and economic conditions. Allende’s electoral platform wasn’t socialist in any way, and was able to polarize a large part of the Christian Democrat’s votes. The disillusionment that Frei brought also meant a shift of many votes to the National Party of Alessandri, the old conservative ‘momio‘ (mummy, as the UP called the conservatives) who had been president in 1958-64. Alessandri got 34.9% of the votes. Clearly, it was a fatal mistake for the conservatives of the National Party coalition to split the votes for PDC in the 1970 elections. Together, they would have obtained an absolute majority of 62.7%, greater even to that of Frei (55%) who had conservative backing in 1964. But in 1969, the conservatives, the latifundists and the Chilean industrial bourgeoisie and banks, had lost confidence in the PDC, and had counted on a sharp turn to the right. Allende meant ‘communism’ to them and the PDC had committed the unforgiveable treachery of playing around with ‘revolution’ (even if ‘in liberty’), a performance which had threatened to open the Pandora box of social revolution. Besides, Frei had been incapable of crushing the leftist students and had permitted the legal existence of the CP. Oh, how sweet were the 1950s under reactionary Ibanez, thought the National Party, when all this wouldn’t have happened!

But after Allende’s victory, they had to concede defeat. They had put all their hopes in the PDC dealing with the UP in congress, and short of supporting a military coup, they feel hopelessly vulnerable. No wonder 20 million dollars left Chile the first week of Allende’s victory. Millions had left before, and many Chilean rich have moved to Buenos Aires as exiles.

It will be difficult for the American government and companies to stage something against Allende at this point. First of all, they have almost no social basis left in Chile. The Chilean bourgeoisie is frightened to the marrow, demoralized and bitter against the US for her unwillingness to intervene. It can only sabotage Allende in congress and hide books, accounts, etc. Such are defensive actions, which find no echo in the broad layers of the exploited. The Chilean bourgeoisie can return, at the present moment, only through a military coup, which would mean civil war. With this in mind, the American imperialists are very worried, and people like Senator Javits or White House advisor Kissinger, can only cry and groan furiously. If American military intervention were to occur it would create a continental and world crisis, which will deepen the crisis faced already by the US internally and in South-East Asia.

The Chilean army (40,000 strong) supports Allende in the manner that the Bolsheviks ‘supported’ Kerensky – noose-wise. For the Chilean bourgeoisie and the US, the Chilean army is their ‘queen’ piece in the chess board. In fact, it is the only internal guarantee they have left against Allende at this point. But, the Chilean army is not a complete puppet of the capitalists and the US. It sees good things in Allende, much more than a National Party conservative of a Nixon-Javits can see. In the first place, Allende has promised not to arm his electoral base. Castro, his personal friend in Cuba, advised him not to move against the army. Given the whole situation, Allende wouldn’t do that unless he wants to commit suicide. Allende considers that the Chilean Army is a bastion of democracy. Indeed, a lot of the UP propaganda concerning the armed forces emphasizes ‘the fact that theirs’ is an army with ‘democratic traditions’, which has intervened in public life once or twice ‘only’ in Chile’s history. The army supports Allende insofar as he doesn’t try to curtail its ‘independence’. This means that no rival armed groups (such as workers’ militias) will be created. The 20,000 police force has been left intact, with the exception of the mobile police squad, which was dissolved (but its members are free).

The Chilean generals will not take kindly any reduction of the army’s budget (20-25% of the national budget). On the contrary, they will probably ask for an increase in its expenses, to face possible attack by Chile’s ‘traditional enemies’ (Peru and Bolivia, which Chile defeated in La guerra del Pacifico during last century). Allende, who is forced to count on army support, will have to accede, especially if he fears an invasion backed by the US or the Organisation of American States. This would mean that the UP indeed sees the Chilean army as a staunch supporter of its regime, if the UP can satisfy the exigencies of the ‘democratic’ generals. Right at the moment the Chilean army is equipped with US and West-European weapons; its air force even has latest model French jet fighter-bombers. To ensure the continuous flow of equipment, supplies and spare parts, by the same manufacturers, it has to stay within the realm of US-NATO control. Any move to buy weapons from Eastern Europe or Russia will be seen in a bad light by the Chilean generals.

Such a move (like Arbenz’s in Guatemala in 1954) would exasperate the military, and Allende is thus trying to be as sweet and friendly as a boy scout.

There has been lots of talk about the army not being ‘a whole reactionary bloc’. Those who think that the Chilean army is rent with radical contradictions and that therefore it can’t move with liberty, forget the fact that an army is an army and not a social democratic club. There is support for Allende in the conscripted ranks, among the NCOs and even in the high command (witness the late General Rene Schneider, a close supporter of Allende, assassinated by reactionaries). But the Chilean army has purged itself of most leftist officers and ‘troublemakers’. ‘By 1962 virtually all officers who were ideologically neutral or who harboured socialist sympathies were reckoned to have been forced into retirement or otherwise removed from their commands.’ [3] Successive army purges and plots occurred in April 1969 (when Schneider himself helped purge officers and sub-officers), October 1969 (the Talcanaze of right-wing General Viaux, a plot dissolved by Frei) and in March 1970. All these events helped Frei to get rid of unreliable officers in view of a possible Allende victory.

The Chilean army has not been defeated anytime. It has the tradition of killing striking miners, occupying factories to impede workers’ takeovers, brutally crushing peasants who interrupt the latifundists’ onces (tea-time), and knouting around the poor. Even if in its ranks there are many allendistas (as there surely are) they can’t run against their officers if the social struggles in civilian society don’t offer a revolutionary, positive, way out.

Right now the UP is completely defenseless against the army, even more so because the UP has consistently told the workers and peasants that nothing reactionary or violent should be expected from the army. Regis Debray, theoretician of the foco and armed struggle, presently a guest of Allende in Santiago, claims that the threat to the electoral victory might come from ‘within’ the UP – not from the army! It is a bitter truth that during ‘normal’ times opportunists and scroundrels of all varieties make all kinds of ‘theories’ about the revolution’s path, but when faced with the real events they simply capitulate to the accomplished fact; in this case, a proto-bourgeois ‘socialist’ election. Those who pay, usually with their blood, are the unarmed workers, students and peasants.

Allende’s Actions

The very coming to power of Allende was vitiated by compromises with the army and the PDC, which controls congress. Allende’s failure to obtain an absolute majority in September at the polls meant that he needed congress’s support. On October 24, they accepted him, but only after a month of horse trading and constitutional amendments forced on the UP by the PDC. Allende has pledged himself to uphold the free press, free trade unions, non-sectarian education and the right of political parties to organize. With a meagre congressional control of 80 seats against the PDC’s 75 and the conservatives’ 45, Allende had to compromise, but since pre-election promises were all vague and demagogic, the watering down of such an essentially reformist program cannot be seen as capitulation. If, before, he promised to expropriate the American copper mines, he still does, but it is left for ‘the future’; besides, he has said that expropriations will be done only after deep study and consultation. The main economic thrust of his program is:

‘The replacement of the present economic structure by a socialist one, divided in three areas: a dominant state area, and private and mixed areas. The state area would be formed by the concerns now under state ownership plus those which will be expropriated. Immediate nationalization of copper, iron, saltpetre and mineral coal and, in general, of all basic products.

‘The state area would include besides the whole financial system of the country through the nationalization of private banks and insurance, foreign trade, the great distributing concerns and monopolies – both Chilean and foreign –, the strategic industrial monopolies and in general all activities which condition the economic development of the country: the production and distribution of electric energy, railways, air and sea transport, communications, production, refineries and distribution of oil and its derivatives, smelting, cement production, petro-chemicals and heavy chemicals industry, cellulose and paper. The economy’s private area will be limited to small and medium industry.’

How he will achieve this sort of ‘welfare state’ nobody knows. Already in December 1969 congress opposed his move to expropriate the Chilean banks. They will obviously oppose him down the line. The credits necessary for the agrarian reform program of the UP will face the same hostility. Frei could teach Allende some lessons on this.

Already in November Allende took over two American owned concerns, NIBSA, a plumbing and heating fittings manufacturer, and Alimentos Purina de Chile. But these and other takeovers with compensation were based on a 1945 law permitting the state to intervene when Chilean workers were threatened; the American companies had reduced production and had begun to lay off workers. The takeovers weren’t part of Allende’s program, and it is quite possible that in the future he sees himself with many industries falling on his lap due to capital flight, sabotage or closing downs. But they will be marginal industries, not the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy. An offensive to get control over that sector of the economy, with or without full compensation, would face fierce opposition from the congress. Allende could only hope that he could carry out particular concrete proposals on a plebiscite basis, if congress opposed him on an issue. But to put through the complete program on such a basis would be nonsense. To attempt it fully would mean civil war, and Allende, who likes to legitimize his every move under Chilean constitutionality, would never do it. He can, of course, wait for the 1973 congressional elections to attempt to get a majority. But that’s too far away, and by then his electoral constituency might be quite eroded, or passive enough to permit a swift, bloodless coup d’état by the military. If that were to happen, Allende’s regime would have proven to be, historically at this period, the Chilean bourgeoisie’s way to demoralize completely the Chilean exploited masses, discipline them brutally under a subsequent military regime and so further its, and US imperialism’s, hold on the economy. It cannot be denied that reformists play this role in Latin American history: what happened to Arbenz in Guatemala and Quadros in Brazil are cases in point.

The pre-electorial program of the UP didn’t contemplate compensation for nationalisations. But after the elections, the UP, under PDC pressure, agreed to go along with the present Chilean constitutional legislation, which calls for compensation Needless to say; the American or Chilean companies are going to push for their terms, that is, they will expect to be payed in dollars, not bonuses or long-term payments rendered non-profitable by Chile’s inflation. Obviously Allende’s regime can’t go along with this, but its hands are tied. Attempts to escape this deadlock by instituting a dictatorial, state-capitalist regime, can only be done violently, and again, it means civil war, including American intervention, international boycott of Chile’s products, which would have to be added to the falling world prices for copper, a metal constituting 70 per cent of Chile’s exports.

Having promised not to destroy what he meant to destroy, Allende is against the wall. His social basis is electoral, not revolutionary. Thus he will be unable to arm this basis which could have otherwise defended him arms in hand, had he and his coalition been a revolutionary one.

History has proven that full state capitalism, the real program of Allende, can be instituted only through violence. The old, classical bourgeoisie, based on a certain play of market forces and free trade’, sees state property with hatred, insofar as it expropriates them for the benefit of a homogeneous, semi-autarchic expanded reproduction of capital managed by state functionaries.

The Left

The MIR didn’t support Allende before he was elected. They looked on the electoral, peaceful intentions of the UP with contempt. But once he got elected, many of the MIR jumped on the bandwagon and supported him unconditionally. They did this even after Allende had publicly threatened that marxists would be punished with vigor if they broke the law. In the University of Concepcion, a Stalinist student killed a young MIRist in a scuffle. When university students in Santiago took over a building in October, the UP considered this a provocation and Allende again disassociated himself from the MIR. Furthermore, when leader Toro, of the slum tenements, advocated the taking over of fundos, schools and factories by the workers themselves, the UP viciously attacked him. The MIR’s ranks, many of whom reject Allende’s victory as a ‘workers’ victory’, have continued to support such mass actions, which run counter to the ‘law and order’ emphasis of the UP and the police. In Temuco, the squatters have occupied much land and the latifundists have shot at them, Mapuche Indians, in the south of Chile, took over more than 400 properties. Allende has arrested those who shot the squatters and has forbidden the police to shoot people. But, as the American socialist Gene Debs said, ‘he who can set you free can also put you in jail.’

The rest of the left is splintered. The MIR has no mass base; it contains only a few thousand militants; the Maoists are a handful and publish a bitterly sectarian magazine; some Trotskyists’ around Luis Vitale in the University of Concepcion have simply joined in the national ‘left’ hysteria to support Allende.

The Communist Party of Chile has been the main prop of the UP. They control three quarters of the 15,000 committees of the UP, covering mainly working class and callampa neighborhoods. The CP is also importantly represented in the ministries: they control the finance, public works and labor ministries. It is in the nature of things that they should have obtained those ministries.

The trade union organisations in Chile are quite weak by European standards; they don’t have the financial and disciplinary means that the latter do. In most cases, the CP organised them and it holds control of the most powerful trade union federation; the CUT (Confederation Unica de Trabajodores), which nominally has around 500,000 members. In 1966, Petras and Young, writing on Chilean labor, held that the percentage of workers organised in trade unions was approximately twelve per cent. [4] Chile, which is 60 per cent urban, is a country in which the working class, including the rural workers, has enormous industrial and numerical weight.

Basing itself upon this class and segments of the middle class, which provide it with certain elements of its nationalist ideology, the CP reigns supreme. It is, to a great degree, the architect of Allende’s victory. Gleefully, Luis Corvalan, General Secretary of the CP, has admonished the workers:

‘The carrying forward of this task (meaning full support for Allende) demands in some cases a change in attitude, the relinquishing of apolitical positions, of economism and of narrow syndicalism; it demands full consciousness of the marvellous perspectives open at this moment.’ [5]

Chilean workers will soon learn what these rantings mean – productivity deals of a harsher nature. The automatism which leads the trade unions to become part of the state’s planning boards in order to regulate wages and productivity, means that they will become direct appendages of the state, a development hastened by the CP’s control of the organised workers.

The Chilean workers haven’t won a victory with Allende. On the contrary, they have suffered another ideological defeat, because Allende’s blunders, failures and economic adventurism will be laid on the door of revolutionary Marxism. It remains the task of Chilean marxists’ to overcome the mystifications and fuse their activity with that of the Chilean workers. If today it is extremely difficult to fight Allende, tomorrow it will be easier. But fight one must. In 1964, it would have been equally difficult to fight Frei. Now there’s so much more at stake.


1. Sergio De Santis, Chile, International Socialist Journal, No.9, June 1965, p.354n.

2. Ibid., p.354n.

3. Ernest Halperin, Nationalism and Communism in Chile, Cambridge 1965, pp.151-52.

4. Petras and Young, Labor in Chile, International Socialist Journal, No.14, p.187n.

5. Speech at public CC meeting in the Teatro Caupolican in Santiago, 26 November 1970.

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