ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

International Socialism, September 1974


David Sandberg

Chile: The Gorillas Are Amongst Us


From International Socialism, No.71, September 1974, pp.29-30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Chile: The Gorillas Are Amongst Us
Helios Prieto
Pluto Press, 50p

THROUGHOUT its brief period in office, the Popular Unity government claimed it was making ‘irreversible’ changes in Chilean society. The role of the state had been transformed with the ‘socialisation’ of large areas of industry and the elimination of landholdings over 80 hectares (150 acres). The nationalisation of the copper mines had placed in the hands of the state a massive surplus which had previously left the country.

Yet it is remarkable how little Popular Unity deviated from the tasks laid down for it in 1970 by the bourgeois majority in Congress. In return for the confirmation of Allende as President, Popular Unity undertook to preserve the mechanism of the bourgeois state, its laws and instruments of repression, intact in the hands of the bourgeoisie.

Further than this, the ‘victory’ of Popular Unity in 1970 had been an expression of the deep crisis of capitalism in Chile. The Christian Democrat President Frei’s ‘Revolution in Freedom’ had failed to lead to capitalist prosperity and national economic ‘independence’ for the bourgeoisie. Meanwhile the consciousness and confidence of the workers, spurred on by the rhetoric of the ‘left’, grew rapidly.

By 1970 there were two clear economic alternatives: a direct attack on the standard of living of the workers to boost profits still further in the hope of producing investment, or a ‘controlled expansion of the domestic demand’ to provide a more fertile ‘market’ for investment.

Politically, the former required the unfettered repression of Chile’s comparatively strong working-class organisations, while the latter required the strict control of a sudden advance in working-class incomes to ensure that it was ‘once and for all’. In 1970 the reaction in Chile was militarily unprepared for the repression. It was rejected as too risky. As a result, a small but significant part of the petty bourgeoisie were prepared to back a Popular Unity government, thereby giving Allende electoral victory. At the same time, preparations for the repression in the long-term could go ahead unmolested.

But the reaction in Chile could hardly have anticipated in its wildest dreams the extent to which Popular Unity would crush the confidence of the workers in just three short years. Even its ultimately cynical attempt to arm workers, intended merely to frighten the bourgeoisie, succeeded only in increasing the savagery of the repression.

In Prieto’s new book, workers in this country will for the first time have an honest, highly readable, detailed and satisfying account of the last gasp of the Popular Unity government and the first terrible days of the repression. We find, for instance, that Communist Party members were instructed to carry their party cards so as not to be confused with the ‘ultra left’, and were then forced to eat them by the military. An apt comment on the value of a Communist Party card. There could, indeed, be no better manner in which to mark the first year of repression in Chile than to digest and act upon the contents of this book.

But the ‘lessons’ of Chile are not bound up exclusively in the dangers of the ‘parliamentary road’, though they follow on from them. For despite the grip of reformism on the Chilean workers, the degree of their independent activity was considerable. The pace of Popular Unity’s feeble agrarian reform, borrowed from the Christian Democrats, was doubled by the independent seizure of land. ‘Socialisation’ took place as often as not in recognition of a fact already established by the workers in individual factories and industries. These requisitioned factories frequently formed the basis of organisations known as industrial ‘cordones’ which linked factories by localities to organise production and fulfil other immediate needs of the workers.

The study which analyses this activity, its structure and political content in detail has as yet unfortunately, still to be written. Indeed, we must rely on a brief translator’s note to inform us on the structure and purpose of the ‘cordones’.

This lack reflects, in some ways, the remarkable fact that despite the extent of this independent activity, there was no political organisation in Chile either willing or able to develop it into a revolutionary force. Almost incredibly, there was no organisation capable of operating effectively in the vanguard of the industrial proletariat

The best illustration of this situation can be found in the copper mines. The copper mines are the peg upon which the entire fabric of capitalism in Chile rests. They produce a large part of the economic surplus (as Chile’s most ‘productive’ workers) and almost all the foreign exchange available to the Chilean economy.

All the contradictions of the ‘Chilean Road to Socialism’ consequently found their highest expression in the copper mines. The purpose of ‘nationalisation’, which not even the extreme right bothered to oppose, was simply to transfer a greater proportion of the surplus from the US corporations to the Chilean state and thereby to Chilean, as opposed to foreign, investors. It had nothing to do with the aspiration of the copper miners, as the vanguard of the struggle for socialism in Chile, to control (though not necessarily to consume) the product of their own labour.

It was a well-known part of Allende’s and the Communist Party’s ideological make-up that they viewed the miners as an ‘aristocracy of labour’, capable of ‘diverting’ the surplus of the mines into their own pockets, and therefore to be broken.

The strength of the miners is not that they are more intelligent than other Chileans, nor even that there are a great many of them, but quite simply, that a strike in the copper mines can cripple the Chilean economy before the miners starve. As a result when wild inflation and an inadequate ‘readjustment’ of wages by the Popular Unity threatened their standard of living, the miners at the El Teniente mine, near Santiago, came out on strike in mid-1973.

But the unions controlled by the Communist Party and Socialist Party, having originally been forced to support the strike, instructed their members to return to work after five days, which they duly did. This, however, left a proportion of the miners (the exact proportion and its content remains a matter of controversy) still out. Most importantly, production could not be resumed. Meanwhile, the reaction organised a campaign of support around the strikers while the UP used terms of extreme condemnation.

Was this, or was it not, a ‘reactionary’ strike? The crucial factor was, however, not so much the strike itself as the fact that for the first time in their long history, the miners were decisively split. Worse than this, as the growing strength of the Christian Democrats in union elections had shown, important sections of militants were being influenced not by the revolutionary left but by the reaction. This was so despite the fact that not five years previously the Christian Democrats had been responsible for the savage repression of miners’ struggles.

Under these circumstances, Prieto’s bland reference to the ‘heroic’ miners who remained on strike is far too simplistic. Nonetheless, it remains true that the MIR (Movement of the Revolutionary Left) appeared incapable of influencing this situation decisively, and apparently split over the question.

Equally, the politics and strategy of the MIR had, on a number of other occasions, resulted at first in hesitancy and then in a pulling back from the struggle as it reached its climax. The MIR originally participated in the ‘cordones’ only to condemn them later as ‘examples of parallel unionism’. It made strenuous efforts to infiltrate the armed forces, raised the slogan ‘Onward to the Dictatorship of the Armed Forces and the People’ after the unsuccessful mini-coup of June 1973, and then, when the armed forces began their savage search for arms in factories, withdrew to complain that no-one in the UP seemed capable of stopping it.

Although a sector of the MIR had grasped the significance of the industrial struggle, only among the peasantry did it have a significant influence as a whole.

Prieto himself condemns the MIR as ‘a fairly typical Castro-ist group preparing for the “armed road”, on the basis of guerrilla “focos”.’ The danger now is that the ‘armed readers’ within the MIR will consider their analysis vindicated in the face of the long haul ahead for the Chilean workers.

He concludes that

‘the greatest tragedy of Chile is that a combative, socialist working class, though full of reformist illusions, found no Marxist revolutionary leadership capable of offering proletarian politics. Throughout this century, the intellectuals of the Chilean left have lived on public posts and parliamentary patronage ... they have proved themselves incapable of generating a theoretical movement that could gather the working class round itself and lead to the formation of a revolutionary party.’

Top of page

ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 25.3.2008