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International Socialism, Mid-October 1973


The Parliamentary Roaders
and the Chile defeat


From International Socialism, No. 63, (Mid-October 1973, pp. 15–17.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


THE PROPONENTS of the ‘parliamentary road to socialism’ have been in turmoil since the coup in Chile early in September. They have been compelled to try and explain how it is that the Popular Unity government, which they pointed to for three years as an example of what could be achieved by socialists acting constitutionally, fell. And they have also had to attempt to prove that a left wing government elected in a country like Britain would be able to avoid the same fate.

Their efforts to do so have led them to string together a series of arguments purporting to show that the Popular Unity parties in Chile behaved correctly, or at least that there was no alternative which would have done any better.

1.The first argument is that:

‘Far from having a majority of the population, Allende got only 36 per cent of the votes in 1970. The objective was therefore to win more and more people to support the government. Despite all the difficulties the aim was being realised and the vote for the Popular Unity in the congressional election in March rose to 44 per cent.’ [1]

The argument contains a significant omission – it forgets to mention that support for Popular Unity did not grow slowly, but shot up in Allende’s first months of office, until the coalition received more than 50 per cent of the votes in the municipal elections of 1971, and declined, albeit slowly, afterwards.

However, there is a much worse fault than that with it. It identifies votes in elections with power in social terms. But the equation is untenable. No revolution in history has been carried through on the basis of a majority of the whole electorate in advance for the revolutionary party: in 1917 for instance, the Bolsheviks did not have an electoral majority in the Constituent Assembly. What they did have was the majority of the workers – a class which has the power to carry through a transformation of society, even when it is the numerical minority. The Russian revolution was only possible because, as Lenin pointed out, ‘the revolutionary proletariat is incomparably stronger in extra-parliamentary than in the parliamentary struggle, as far as influencing the masses and drawing them into the struggle is concerned.’ [2] (his emphases).

Chile was no exception to this general rule in the period of the Popular Unity government. This is shown by the simple fact that the government survived for three years, despite Allende’s minority vote in 1970. The same landowners, industrialists and army officers who overthrew Allende did not feel powerful enough to prevent his accession to the presidency three years ago and refused to back the coup then planned by ITT. As late as June this year, the armed forces estimated that popular working class support for the left would give a coup little chance of success: why else should the same officers that now rule Chile have refused support for an attempted coup at that date?

Those parties which claimed to be Marxist in Chile certainly had as much support among the workers as the Bolsheviks had in Russia in 1917. The difference was that the Bolsheviks took the opportunity when their support was at its greatest to smash the old state, by destroying the power of the officers in the army and establishing a Soviet, workers’ council, state. The Chilean parties, by contrast, bolstered up the old state machine. According to one of the British CP’s own experts on Chile, writing in July, ‘the whole country has been declared an emergency zone. This means that the armed forces, the army, is in charge of the situation in all parts of the country. Each chief of Emergency Zone, a high level member of the armed forces, has the power to decide what may be done and what may not be done while the emergency zone exists.’ [3]

2. The argument about the low Allende vote is followed by a stress on the need for the Popular Unity parties to have gained more support.

‘Therefore the central aim of the forces of Popular Unity was to drive forward the implementation of its programme, step by step, in order to weaken the economic and political positions of the big capitalists and landowners and detach from their side a substantial section of the peasants, urban petty bourgeois, professional people, technicians and women, and even some sections of the workers who in Chile have usually voted Christian Democrat or Nationalist.’ [4]

Now in itself the argument is not wrong. What it does not say is how other sections of the population are supposed to be brought to follow the lead of the left. What in fact this meant for the Popular Unity government (and for the Communist Party in particular) was trying to come to an agreement with the Christian Democrat party and the armed forces – an agreement which could only mean curtailing the programme of reforms, even though most of the economy remained privately owned.

But Chile has been gripped all this year by escalating inflation – partly because of capitalist economic sabotage, partly as a result of the ‘normal’ functioning of a capitalist economy in a semi-backward third world country. To talk of an agreement with the Christian Democrats meant accepting that it was possible to deal with this inflation under capitalism – a policy which was unlikely to work and would, in any case, mean attacks on workers’ living standards. However, without a programme for dealing with inflation quickly, there was no chance of drawing the ‘middle strata’ to the government.

Similarly, in the countryside, the medium sized capitalist farmers, faced with growing discontent from their labourers, were not likely to rush to support the Popular Unity government unless it was brutally repressive. And the labourers had little real reason to either, given that the government told them effectively that they must remain labourers for ever – its land reform only benefitted 7–15 per cent of the population and left untouched farms of up to 180 acres, [5] ‘where exploitation is frequently greater than on the large estates.’ [6]

As Lenin pointed out in 1917, if ‘the people are being overcome by apathy, indifference; it is all the same to them, because the hungry man cannot see the difference between the republic and the monarchy; the freezing, barefooted, worn-out soldier sacrificing his love the republic.’

‘We have not yet seen, however, the strength of resistance of the proletarians and poor peasants, for this strength will become fully apparent only when power is in the hands of the proletariat ... when every labourer, every unemployed worker, every cook, every ruined peasant sees, not from the newspapers, but with his own eyes, that the proletarian state is not cringing to wealth but is helping the poor, that this state does not hesitate to adopt revolutionary measures, that it confiscates surplus stocks of provisions from the parasites and distributes them to the hungry, that it forcibly installs the homeless in the houses of the rich, that it compels the rich to pay for milk but does not give them a drop until the children of all poor families are sufficiently supplied, that the land is being transferred to the working people and the factories and banks are being placed under the control of the workers, and that immediate and severe punishment is meted out to the millionaires who conceal their wealth – when the poor see and feel this, no capitalist or kulak forces, no forces of world finance capital which manipulates thousands of millions, will vanquish the people’s revolution.’ [7]

Instead of following this advice, the Popular Unity government tried to administer capitalism – something which socialists are no better at than capitalists. Inevitably it paid the price – the ‘middle strata’ blamed it for the economic mess, and even sections of workers (notably the copper workers) found themselves on strike against the government for which they had voted and its ‘socialist’ incomes policy.

3. ‘Whatever their intentions, the ultra-left groups outside the Popular Unity, such as the MIR (Movement of the Revolutionary Left), and those sections supporting them in the Socialist Party and in MAPU (two of the Popular Unity coalition parties) played into the hands of reaction. By their adventurism, they contributed to the alienation of large sections of the middle strata, and aggravated the situation of conflict at a time when the relation of class forces was still unfavourable, if the Popular Unity had been able to gain more time, then there would have been the possibility of winning a decisive majority of the people and this would have had, its impact on the armed forces too. ‘ [8]

The implication is that the defeat in Chile must be blamed not on the mass working class parties, which had enormous influence, but on small left wing groups which, unfortunately, did not.

What was it that annoyed the Chilean bourgeoisie – including its ‘liberal’ sections – and made them opt for a coup? We have the answer from the mouth of the ‘left wing’ Christian Democrat Tomic already more than a year ago: ‘the illegal occupations of farms, small holdings, shanty towns, rented land, commercial offices, factories, mines, schools, public buildings, roads and bridges.’ [9]

And who was behind these occupations? ‘They are not only the work of the ultra-left: they are also the spontaneous action of groups of peasants, workers and miners.’ [10]

The argument against the ultra-left is really an argument that the Chilean workers should have held back from the most elementary forms of class struggle, so as not to ‘aggravate the situation of conflict at a time when the relation of class forces are unfavourable’. For the Popular Unity ministers this was not just a question of words: they were prepared, on occasions, to send in the police and troops to drive peasants from the land, to break up left wing demonstrations and to force workers (albeit well paid copper workers) back to work.

What this waiting for the ‘possibility of winning a decisive majority of the people’ meant in terms of the balance of class forces was shown by the reaction of the government to the refusal of rank and file sailors to obey orders from their reactionary officers soon after the first abortive attempt at a coup in June. Instead of trying to spread the revolt of the rank and file to the rest of the armed forces and mobilising backing for it among the workers (for instance, with a general strike, demonstrations to the barracks and so on), the Popular Unity leadership sat back while the mutiny was suppressed and continued to collaborate in the government with the officers who were suppressing it.

4. It is said that the Communist Party in Chile did not put all its faith in constitutional methods. It recognised ‘the dangers of a coup and the possibility of people having to face armed struggle’. [11]

This seems to be little more than a downright lie. In a speech made in Santiago on 8 July, the general secretary of the Chilean CP insisted that ‘we continue to support the absolutely professional character of the armed institutions. Their enemies are not among the ranks of the people but in the reactionary camp.’ [12] Corvelan is now in prison and on trial for his life. But it does not seem to have altered his views. He recently told a Daily Telegraph correspondent:

‘We never backed the guerrillas, or the idea of an armed rising. On the contrary, when we were called upon to support a civil war, I drew up a letter on the need for a constitutional solution and went to see President Allende on Sunday, 9 September (two days before the coup).’ [13]

And Kate Clark, the British CP’s correspondent in Chile wrote on 28 July:

‘The recent abortive coup has shown that the great majority of the armed forces, whatever their personal opinions may be, are not prepared to go against their professional tradition, their long standing loyalty to the Chilean constitution and the constitutional government of the day, even if the government is a revolutionary one, such as the Popular Unity is.’ [14]

What is true is that the Chilean CP occasionally made vague statements to the effect that reactionaries might try to overthrow the government and that if this happened the CP would fight back. ‘If the reactionary sedition becomes greater, entering the realms of armed struggle, let nobody have any doubts that the people will rise promptly, as one man, to crush it.’ [15]

But a policy of waiting for the ruling class and the officer corps to launch an attack inevitably leads to disaster. It means that the officers have all the time in the world to separate out militant leftists among the army rank and file and prevent them influencing their fellow soldiers. It means also that the officers can wait until inflation and food shortages, arising from economic sabotage by the capitalist class, have demoralised a significant number of workers and have driven the middle class into bitter opposition to the government.

The argument about waiting for the right wing to launch its attacks is not new. It was used in 1917 by those who opposed Lenin’s call for an armed insurrection. Lenin poured scorn on the argument.

‘The leading article in Novaya Zhizn of 1 October produced another gem of stupidity ... “The lessons of movements ... have shown quite clearly that the democracy, having at its command organs that exercise immense influence among the population, is invincible when it takes a defensive position in civil war, and that it suffers defeat, loses all the middle vacillating groups when it takes the initiative and launches an offensive.” If the Bolsheviks were to yield in any form and in the slightest degree to the philistine stupidity of this argument they would ruin their party and the revolution.’ [16]

Lenin then went on to quote Marx on the danger of trying to disarm the ruling class while assuming a defensive posture.

‘The defensive is the death of every armed rising; it is lost before it measures itself with its enemies. Surprise your antagonists while their forces are scattered, prepare the way for new successes, however small, but prepare daily; keep up the moral superiority which the first successful rising gives you; rally in this way the vacillating elements to your side which always follow the strongest impulses and are always on the look-out for the safer side; force your enemies to retreat before they can gather their strength against you; in the words of Danton, the greatest master of revolutionary tactics yet known: “de l’audace, de l’audace, encore de l’audace!”.’

5. The final argument used by the proponents of the parliamentary road is that there was, in Chile, no alternative.

‘The choice of “revolution” rather than “legality” was not on. Neither in military nor in political terms was the Popular Unity in a position to win a trial of physical strength. Certainly, Allende hated civil war ... But Allende did all he could to avoid it, because he believed that his side would lose a civil war; and he was undoubtedly right.’ [17]

‘For the “ultra-left” the perspective would have been an unsuccessful leftist coup d’etat.’ [18]

If these statements are true, then only one conclusion can follow: there was no way open for the Chilean workers and peasants to prevent a reactionary coup and the destruction of their organisations. For, if an armed uprising might have failed, the constitutional road did fail. The lesson that must be drawn by hundreds of millions of people who live below the subsistence level throughout the third world must be: do not even go as far as the Popular Unity government and the workers’ movement did in Chile in extracting concessions from big business; if you do you will inevitably be buried in wood as were the Chileans. Such is the logic of those who claim that the ‘constitutional road’ is the only road to socialism!

What then was the alternative?

It was not, as those committed to the parliamentary road to socialism imply, a coup, carried through by a conspiracy of armed revolutionaries and a few left wing officers in the armed forces. Nor was it to start to arm the workers at the last minute in July and August of this summer. It was to prepare the working class – at first by propaganda and then in practice – for a decisive struggle to smash the old state machine. There were at least three years in which to make these preparations.

The army in Chile, as in every other country in the world, is organised along strictly hierarchic lines, with the officer corps drawn from the middle and upper classes and mixing daily with their class of origin; the rank and file are drawn from the working class, but separated from their own class of origin in barracks, trained to obey orders given to them from above and facing harsh punishments the moment they disobey any orders, however distasteful. The Popular Unity parties chose to strengthen that army, by buying it expensive modern weapons and giving it internal security powers.

A genuinely Marxist workers’ movement would have acted in a completely different way, opposing any attempt to improve the army’s equipment, voting against every military budget, repeatedly telling the workers to distrust the army. It would have countered the attempts at economic sabotage by the bourgeoisie with a call for workers to occupy their factories and exercise physical control over the economy at the point of production. It would have argued for safeguarding this control with armed pickets – the embryo of a workers’ militia. It would have gained backing for its struggle in the countryside by guaranteeing land to every single landless labourer and small peasant. It would have agitated among the rank and file of the armed forces for them to turn against their reactionary officers. Finally, it would have argued that delegates from factories, the peasantry and the rank and file of the army should meet together to unite their struggles, so that every worker, socialist, Communist or Christian Democrat, trade unionist or non-trade unionist, felt that he was part and parcel of the developing movement.

What was involved was not an uprising prepared in secrecy and carried out behind the back of the mass of the population, but the building up of an armed mass movement, which could break the hold of the officers over much of the army and, gaining arms in the process, at a crucial point use these arms to smash once and for all those sections of the old army which remained intact.

All the elements necessary to such a movement were present in Chile: the occupation of the factories, the fight of the peasantry for land, the preparation of at least some sections of workers for armed struggle, the linking of factories together in new delegate structures, the workers’ cordones, the attempts at mutiny in the armed forces. The tragedy was that instead of drawing together these elements, the main workers’ parties lulled themselves to sleep with talk about the ‘constitutional role of the army’ and left the initiative with the ruling class.


1. The Morning Star, 17 September 1973. The argument is repeated, virtually word for word, by Jack Woddis in an article from the Morning Star, 22 September 1973, which the Communist Party has reprinted in hundreds of thousands of copies as a leaflet, and also appears, again almost word for word, in Comment, 7 September 1973.

2. Lenin, The Russian Revolution and the Civil War, Rabochy Put, 29 September 1917, in Collected Works, vol. 26, p. 33.

3. Kate Clark, in Comment, 28 July 1973.

4. Woddis, op. cit.

5. Estimates given by S. Barraclough, in K.J. Ann Zammit (ed.), The Chilean Road to Socialism, Brighton 1973, p. 120. The seven per cent figure to refer to the total number of peasants granted land about 18 months ago; the 15 per cent figure to the total number who would have received land if the reform had been completed.

6. Jacques Chonchol (Allende’s minister of Agriculture) in Zammit, ibid., p. 100.

7. Lenin, Can The Bolsheviks Retain State Power (September 1917), Collected Works, vol. 26, p. 127

8. Woddis, op. cit.

9. In J. Ann Zammit, op. cit., p. 37

10. Ibid.

11. Woddis, op. cit.

12. Speech reprinted in Marxism Today, September 1973.

13. In Daily Telegraph, 6 October 1973.

14. Comment, 28 July 1973.

15. Corvalan in Marxism Today, op. cit.

16. Lenin, Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power, op. cit., pp. 131–2.

17. Eric Hobsbawm in New Society, 20 September 1973.

18. Digby Jacks, letter to Morning Star, 1 October 1973.

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