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International Socialism, February 1974


Luis Angel Fernandez Hermana

Workers’ Struggle Under Allende


From International Socialism, No.66, February 1974, pp.22-26.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


MUCH HAS been written about the military coup which overthrew Chile’s Popular Unity government last September. In issues 62 and 63 this journal carried articles describing the events which led to the coup and their lessons for the working-class movement internationally. This article, has a much more limited aim – to describe how the Chilean workers threw up a form of organisation, the industrial cordones, capable of developing into workers’ councils and acting as the embryo of a genuinely working class state power. The author was in Chile until the coup.

THE MAIN struggles of the working class during the period of the Popular Unity government took place within a particular context: the ‘Social Area’ (i.e. government controlled sector) of the economy. This sector was the key-piece in the government’s strategy for a ‘peaceful road to socialism’. It was here that it hoped to establish the foundations of a ‘new society’ using the very laws and institutions which the ruling classes had built up over 150 years in order to protect their rule.

The government had organised the Social Area by agreement with the CUT (the Chilean TUC) so as to enable the bureaucracies of the state and the unions to come together to control jointly the working class. To this end, the agreement meticulously stipulated the way in which the transference of private industries to state control should take place and how they were to be administered.

The basic administrative structure imposed, both at the national level and for particular industries, was one in which top decisions were made by a council of five government appointees and five union appointees (at the factory level only three were from the manual workers’ unions, with one from the white collar unions and one from professional employees) presided over by a government representative. This meant that the workers were always in a minority position.

The government placed a chief administrator in all of the factories in the Social Area and in those likely to be taken over soon. The job of this Administrator was similar to that of the ex-bosses when faced with the demands of the workers: either to repress their demands or to dictate measures without taking the workers into account. It was for these reasons that a great many workers’ assemblies in the factories were demanding the removal of their ‘new bosses’ (who were on the whole Socialist and Communist Party militants) and the handing-over of the factory’s administration to the workers.

A further impediment to workers controlling things themselves was provided by the way in which the CUT was organised. Although there were fairly regular elections for officials, these were chosen according to party slates. Once elected officials were the property of their respective parties, which could replace them if they wished. (The MIR used this device to remove their elected official, Alejandro Alarcon, after they had expelled him from the party for demanding a democratic assembly in which the different tendencies within the rank and file could express themselves.)

However, this hierarchic structure did not prevent the Social Area becoming the main arena of struggle for the working class. The government had drawn up a strict list limiting the number of industries destined to be taken over. But workers fought to get others incorporated into the state sector – partly because of the need to get control of the productive apparatus, partly because wages were higher in the state sector than elsewhere. At the same time, there was a growing struggle for economic demands. The government was insisting that the main aim should be to increase productivity, claiming that ‘the productivity battle must be won, more has to be produced for the good of the country in order to deprive the rich of their power and to give more to the poor’. But with rapid inflation (the result of the economic crisis the country had been suffering for at least 10 years) what was really happening was that profits were going straight into the pockets of big businessmen: through their connections with world capitalism and their political, military and ideological power, they were able to lay down the rules of the game with regard to exports, imports, credit, production quantities, and distribution control, as well as engage in whatever sort of boycott, fraud or hoarding suited them.

The Bosses’ Strike

WHILE THERE was growing concern among the working class about these problems, many smaller businessmen were also losing out. But their anger was directed against the government and the working class rather than the large capitalists who were gaining at their expense. Their anger expressed itself in the bosses’ ‘strike’ of October 1972 and the bourgeoisie immediately seized upon this as a means of isolating the working class with the aim of taking back the gains it had made.

The ‘strike’ began in the far southern area of Punta Arenas where a number of small lorry-owners opposed the installation of a state-owned transport company. The area’s shopkeepers joined them. In less than one week the capitalists had paralysed the country, they blocked roads, abandoned the production centres and boycotted public services. The left wing parties were disconcerted. Their view of the class struggle did not envisage such methods as a general bosses’ strike. And in their perplexity they preferred to appeal to the patriotic sentiments of the bourgeoisie and to remind them that they were infringing the country’s democratic order, rather than be guided by the militant spirit of the workers.

It was a policy that played straight into the hands of the ruling class and opened up to it the possibility of defeating the workers. But the workers were not prepared to sit back and accept such a defeat. It was then that the industrial cordones really began to develop.

The Cordones

THE CREATION of these organs had begun quietly a few months before October. They grouped together all those factories in the same geographical area and had arisen as a way of providing the unions with a unified leadership over demands of an immediate economic nature. Their leaders obviously came from the union organisation, although neither the Popular Unity nor the CUT accepted them and were able to restrict them to being more an idea than a reality. Now however, the working class movement was forced to search desperately for some means of confronting the bourgeoisie on the terrain they had chosen – that of who organises the relations of production.

The workers saw that the two principal problems were the organisation of production and the distribution of goods, and that these two activities had to be combined in the widest possible movement of socialisation. Their future as a class depended upon the success of this first step.

They began by requisitioning all those industries abandoned by their bosses and integrated them into the corresponding cordon, or created new cordones where they did not previously exist. Within a few days the following cordones had been formed in Santiago: Mapocho, Alameda Station, O’Higgins, Macul, Cerrillos and Vicuna MacKenna. In this way effective workers’ control began to develop. Production was directed by the workers, much vaunted ‘commercial secrecy’ was destroyed with the taking over of the accounting books, and the administration of industry was made much easier. Each cordon was directed by an executive, elected in the factory assemblies, whose job was to co-ordinate all the tasks in the sector. Each member in the executive had a specific job to fulfill, previously decided upon in the assembly discussions.

The immediate need to link all these cordones together and to the rest of the population gave rise to the appearance of co-ordinating committees – the central nerves of the workers’ organisation. The members of these committees were elected by the executives of the cordones and their activity was closely and permanently supervised by the base, with whom a close relationship had to be kept in order to take up the initiatives that arose in the rank and file and to put them into practice. These committees were also linked to the neighbourhood organisations, thus forming a circle whose influence, beginning in the factory, reached the most distant section of the people.

Grouped together under the name of Communal Commands were the Neighbourhood ‘Juntas’, Mothers’ Groups and ‘Juntas’ for the Control of Prices and Food Distribution. The latter had been created by the state bureaucracy a few months before as a desperate attempt to control the distribution mechanism and as a substitute for taking more effective measures in the productive sector itself. Now, in the workers’ hands and closely bound to the productive cycle, they showed an operative capacity far different to that ever dreamed of by their creators.

The leaders of these Communal Commands were also elected and their tasks decided upon by the assemblies of the respective Juntas. In all these elections the masses showed their organisational and decision-making capacity. Neither names or demagogic background counted; the men chosen were the most determined and the most capable.

With the same decisiveness all speculators and intermediaries were done away with overnight. Goods travelled directly from the factory to the consumer. Their sale was direct and controlled by the people’s organisations. Small shops and supermarkets which had joined in the bosses’ strike were forcibly reopened, their sales controlled by the housewives, protected by pickets of slum dwellers. The people occupying the supermarket on Macul Avenue resisted two attempts by the police to eject them, and only gave in finally once the strike had ended, after conciliatory action from the Popular Unity.

A solution was found to the shortage of vehicles; the order was given that all lorries that were not working should be requisitioned and used either for food or passenger transport. The cement factory ‘Ready Mix’ made all its lorry transport available to the Co-ordinating Committees. At a community level militias of watchmen were created spontaneously to protect this new activity and to defend the class from terrorist acts which were being committed increasingly by the right-wing commando-groups.

The main priority throughout this period of conflict was that of providing foodstuff and other essential articles to the poorer working class areas of the towns. The bourgeoisie meanwhile either lived off its hoarded supplies or at the expense of those sectors of the population which were still controlled by Allende’s verbiage – but these sectors were few compared with those that acted freely.

The conditions were created in the October crisis for the working class to begin an offensive against the enemy positions and to prepare itself for further struggles by increasing the power of the organisations it itself had thrown up – the only organisations that could overcome the ideological fragmentation of the class which capitalism had produced.

For the first time in two years of socialistic phraseology, the real prospect of power by the working class was emerging. The working class was showing with its creative ability that it was not enough to talk about blueprints. What was needed was to attack the bourgeoisie where it hurt most: excluding it from the reorganisation of production, so demonstrating its parasitical and exploitative character and proving that society could do without it.

Although the movement was centred in the Social Area, where the control from above by the CUT bureaucracy was strongest, it was initiated by the rank and file, taking as its starting point the pursuit of economic goals. In the critical situation facing the country, this meant disputing the bourgeoisie’s right to organise society. In this sense the economically motivated struggle became concerned with a political problem – with the greatest political problem of all class struggles. Thus events occurred like those in the town of Talca, where the workers occupied, edited, wrote and printed the newspaper El Sur, using it to give clear instructions for taking control of the town.

The whole crisis served to train militants and workers’ leaders in a new way: for the first time in their lives they were gaining political experience closely linked to the masses and not through participation in rigid bureaucratic mechanisms. Political party differences disappeared among the workers and the militant rank and file from all the left wing parties was united with independent workers and the proletarian sections of the Christian Democrat Party. The state administrators either disappeared or were absorbed into the movement.

The co-ordination of the different organs developed on the basis of their economic interrelation. Industries were integrated into cordones, and from there their influence spread to other social groups by means of the co-ordinating committees which, in turn, made possible the working of the neighbourhood organisations grouped into the Communal Commands.

In this way, the working class maintained its leadership and integrated other social groups into the struggle (professional men, students, housewives, slumdwellers), all pursuing the same objective – something that had never been achieved by the Popular Unity in its two years in government.

The movement was not restricted only to Chile’s capital, Santiago, but was a national phenomenon. Organisations of a similar character were thrown up in each of the 13 most important provinces of the country. However, the spontaneous character of the movement meant that national co-ordination did not develop.

Finally, the parasitical nature of the bourgeoisie was demonstrated. It was shown that workers could take control of the organisation of society and begin to demolish the myth about the immutability of bourgeois relations of production.

Decline of the Cordones

HOWEVER, these positive factors were not the only ones at work. The subjective element – the continuing ideological influence of the reformist ideas of Popular Unity – caused the popular movement to recede after the October crisis. The bourgeoisie was allowed to resume its advance and reinstate its own brand of ‘legality’ long before the final coup. This was possible because:

  1. The workers did not see their mobilisation as involving a direct break with the reformist leadership. Indeed, their prevailing attitude was that the mobilisation was in support of that leadership. In just three weeks of spontaneous activity, the working class could not possibly free its consciousness from the ideology which had dominated it for 50 years. This ideology placed on a pedestal both formal, bourgeois democracy and the institutions of the bourgeois state, including the army, presenting them as if they belonged to the workers. Because the crisis took the form of an attack by the bourgeoisie on the Popular Unity government, workers could believe that they themselves were only a secondary object of the attack (whereas in reality, the main attack was on their gains) and direct all their activity towards a reaffirmation of Popular Unity leadership within the existing state apparatus. The necessary qualitative leap of converting the workers’ organisations created in the crisis into independent proletarian institutions could not be taken. No revolutionary party existed that supported the workers’ conquests and the majority of the workers were still under the control of reformism.
  2. In the middle of the bosses’ strike, the government declared an ‘emergency zone’, thereby automatically bringing the armed forces into play. An enormous publicity campaign was mounted presenting the armed forces as ‘supporting the people’s cause, because the people act within the limits of the constitution and its laws’. But what really happened was that the army did its utmost to control the activity of the people’s organisations so as to ensure that the bourgeois institutions were not vitally affected in any way. Consistent with its reformist traditions, the working class did not contemplate any sort of policy against the military; and so facilitated the latter’s actions once the bosses’ strike was over.

The bourgeoisie took advantage of the ideological confusion within the working class to ensure an outcome in its own favour. With the consent of the left wing parties, military representatives joined Allende’s cabinet and all attention was focused on the electoral fight due in March. By making the elections seem the axis around which the class struggle evolved, the bourgeoisie, with the Popular Unity’s complicity, reduced the possibilities of the uncontrolled actions of the masses going beyond the bounds of the system.

The result was that the movement that had developed in October declined and disintegrated. Further social and political development were confined within the bourgeois structure, and the armed forces were introduced to safeguard this situation.

None of the left wing parties had accompanied the working class in its confrontation with the bourgeoisie. These parties preferred to conciliate with the capitalists rather than support wholeheartedly the efforts of the workers. Even the MIR (the Movement of the Revolutionary Left, which had originally been an urban guerrilla group – ed.) said that it supported the joint UP-Military government ‘in so far as it encouraged the struggle of the masses’. The unions were not flexible or representative enough to be able to lead the fight.

The organisation born in October needed to be developed and to extend their sphere of operation from an economic confrontation to a political one. Only in this way could they nave become instruments capable of ensuring the political and ideological independence of the class and suitable for the seizure of power.

However, the Communist Party and those who followed its line claimed that the outcome of the bosses’ strike had been a victory for the working class. They urged workers to express this victory in the ballot boxes. And as this was the central aim in the political struggle the CP supported the military’s order that those industries occupied in October should be handed back to the employers. Nor was this all. The Party boycotted the cordones and prepared laws giving guarantees that ‘no such excesses of behaviour leading to the indiscriminate occupation of factories’ should be repeated (part of the text of the Communist economics minister, Orlando Millas’ project for a new law). Thanks to this, a great number of industries were returned to their original owners, although this often took months of continual ejections and occupations, as in the electronic industry in the northern town of Arica.

The Socialist Party and the MIR joined forces in employing threatening and arrogant language against the bourgeoisie. But the Socialist Party remained in the government and both put stress on the preparation for the elections and the need to avoid, at all costs, a bourgeois majority in a bourgeois parliament.

From October to March both the Co-ordinating Committees and the Communal Commands languished and gradually disappeared. Empty of content and without any short-term creative objectives, they were diluted by the effort demanded of the workers for the electoral confrontation. This type of activity, however, meant that the spirit of October was lost.

In the elections the Popular Unity obtained the excellent result of 43 per cent of the votes. But the reformists believed, as always, that this high percentage signified support for their conciliatory policies and did not see it as a product of an ever-sharpening class struggle which had clearly separated the voters into two poles: the right and the left.

Prelude to the Coup

AFTER THE elections not one political directive was given to the working class. When the cordones continued trying to solve the immediate problems of distribution of supplies by setting up local stores and distribution points, their initiatives were quickly sat upon by the state bureaucracy. The bourgeoisie was left a free hand for preparing its final blow.

The appearance of tanks in the streets during the first abortive coup of 29 June showed the bitter reality of the plans the bourgeoisie were preparing for the working class movement. But the Popular Unity regarded the coup as the act of madness by an isolated lieutenant backed by the extreme right. While calling for confidence in the patriotic feelings of the soldiers, the CUT ordered the workers to occupy the factories and keep calm. The whole left wing leadership supported this policy. Those who made speeches about the unconquerable strength of the masses or boasted of the steps they had taken towards socialism (as if just talking about them brought them into existence) found that when the armoured vehicles of the bourgeoisie appeared on the streets, all they could do was advocate calmness and serenity, ordering the workers to return to the factories and, come what may, produce.

The bourgeoisie now decided to solve, once and for all, its most glaring and important problem: the existence of a real working class vanguard which was revitalising the industrial cordones.

This vanguard had taken note of what had happened after the attempted coup. It was beginning to become aware of the vacillation of the Popular Unity in the face of the bourgeois offensive. This was brought home even more forcefully by the beginning of a new offensive of lorry owners and basically right wing white collar unions, which attempted to impose the same terms as in October – with one difference: the right wing confederations were now openly demanding Allende’s resignation. In such conditions, one might have expected the exploited class to have seen much more clearly than in October the real objectives of the struggle.

However, it was the bourgeoisie which had most thoroughly learnt the lessons. On this occasion they were not prepared to permit any initiative which might threaten their stability as a class. And so they adopted the tactic of engaging in a series of small-scale confrontations aimed at gradually undermining the political cohesion of the workers, who were forced to retreat more and more into their workplaces. Workers were prevented from engaging in action on the streets, factories were searched by the military for arms, agrarian reform centres were ransacked, stoppages were organised in the different public sectors. All this was combined with acts of terrorism by the right, including sabotage and murder, which became more and more general and violent.

This time, the bourgeoisie did not launch an instantaneous strike as in October, leaving the working class to react as it saw fit. Instead, the exploiting classes prepared very carefully for the final blow, weakening the ability of the workers to fight back. They were protected by the fact that the workers were still subjected to the empty slogans of a reformism which told them to remain passive and above all by the fact that the reactivated cordones were not being allowed to extend their base beyond their industry of origin. Workers who were beginning to see what needed to be done had to fight against the CUT which opposed inch by inch the development of the cordones, declaring them to be ‘breakaway’ organisations, and attempted to convert them into merely territorial units. The workers replied that the fight to restore the class content to the union could not constitute a ‘breakaway’ and that to propose an independent organisation of tht working class was to place the struggle in the context of two classes struggling for power.

The Communist Party was much more direct in its actions. First of all it tried to boycott the cordones by establishing its own parallel cordones with its own militants. Then, when this attempt was proven futile, it demanded that its own union leaders be the leaders of the cordones, on the grounds that they belonged to ‘the most important workers’ party’. It was trying to prevent the development of what the workers were really demanding: workers’ democracy in which leaders would be elected in the workers’ assemblies, given authority for particular tasks and subject to recall at any time.

While the struggle over the cordones was taking place, the workers were also having to wage a difficult battle with the reformists in relation to economic issues: in October 1973 they were due to submit a new wage claim.

Allende had already labelled any attempt at a serious struggle in this sense as ‘economistic’. The workers, however, paid little attention to this. By means of the cordones, all the building unions presented a united claim, insisting upon a wage increase in line with the increase in the cost of living (300 per cent). The textile workers and the copper workers from the five biggest mines did the same, thus presenting united claims for the first time in their history.

However, the newly emerging vanguard of the class was still prevented by the influence of the Popular Unity from co-ordinating and centralising itself, and from overcoming its isolation from other social groups and proletarian centres. The class enemy continued to have room for manoeuvre, which it used to carry through the September coup and inflict massive repression.


DESPITE THE defeat, the Chilean working class indicated which way forward the movement had to go, both from a political and economic point of view. This necessarily is the key to any reactivation of its fight against capital in Chile. Any policy which ignores the essence of these developments, vivid in the workers’ consciousness, will be condemned to failure because it-will inevitably provide a policy for the working class, not of it.

Those who raise Allende as a ‘martyr of the revolution’ just cannot understand the state of mind of those workers who, while awaiting torture in the Football Stadium, held meetings in which they criticised his suicidal policies – policies which always put more trust in the ‘loyalty’ of the bourgeoisie and its generals than in the militant capacity of the workers.

Political strikes have already been carried out by the workers in Talca, Lota Schwager and two factories in Santiago, demanding the release of their comrades in the concentration camps. But these will mean little to those middle class revolutionaries who see the only way out of the present situation as through an imaginary insurrection against the regime and who believe that the bitter blow suffered by the proletariat proves only that it needs their help to liberate itself.

With the loss of its own blood, the Chilean working class has lost many of its illusions in formal democracy. But it has also learnt that the simple desire to overthrow the system is not sufficient to lead to victory, unless the workers’ movement possesses the necessary instrument for ensuring its own leadership of society, drawing behind it the other sections committed to socialist revolution.

The organisations which remain intact in Chile have two choices: either reconstructing the movement within the class or acting outside of the class and disorganising it even more. Time alone will tell which of these options is taken.

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