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Mike Gonzalez

The left and the coup in Chile

(Winter 1984)

From International Socialism 2 : 22, Winter 1984, pp. 45–86.
Transcribed by Marven James Scott.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

More than ten years ago, on September 11th, 1973, a military coup overthrew the Chilean government; there followed repression of extraordinary savagery which left 30,000 workers dead and countless others tortured, maimed, without work and hungry. For five years, the working class movement was dismembered and destroyed – which had been the prime objective of the coup. As the military government approached its tenth anniversary, however, the picture changed. In April 1983 [1], a miners’ conference decided to call a series of national strikes on the 11th of each month, starting in May. Although the original strike call was attenuated [2] into a National Day of Peaceful Protest, there were confrontations between workers and the army and police in the working class districts, leaving one person dead. But the barricades had reappeared in Chile’s streets, and on the 11th of the months that followed strikes and massive protest demonstrations occurred throughout the country.

The military coup of September 11th represented the victory of the political line of the right known as the ‘hard’ or ‘black’ coup. [3] The politics of reform had been attempted first under Frei (1964–70), then under Allende (1970–73); in both cases what was involved were ‘orthodox Keynesian techniques for turning a recession into a boom ... But both left intact the capitalist structure of the economy and did not even bite into the massive incomes of the rich’. [4]

It was not Allende’s economic policies which moved the bourgeoisie to act decisively in 1973, but the rising level of class struggle that occurred during his 3-year government. But to explain these events we must first look at the background to the rise to power of Allende.

The road to 1970

The modern history of Chile has been shaped by its mining industry, where the chains that tied it to the world economy were forged. Under Spanish colonial rule, the land supplied the bulk of the wealth, and it was the landowning class that predominated. In the 1850s, copper, silver and coal mining developed. But the definitive change came with the seizure of the northern nitrate fields in 1879, after Chile’s victory over Peru in the Pacific War. By the end of the century, 97% of the state’s tax revenue came from nitrates. And when artificial nitrates destroyed the market for Chilean exports, copper came to occupy the same key role.

The nitrate boom created a new bourgeoisie and an expanded state sector employing 50,000 people, whose political voice was the Radical Party. [5] The 53,000 nitrate workers were also Chile’s first proletariat, and provided the base for Chile’s early trade unions, and for the Communist Party founded in 1920 by Luis Emilio Recabarren. [6] The collapse of the nitrate industry virtually destroyed the working class movement, however, and radicalised a middle class which saw its privileged position disappear almost overnight. A Popular Front government followed in 1931 [7] and in the 1940s – by which time copper had replaced nitrates in the Chilean economy – the newly formed Socialist Party was to follow the CP along the Popular Frontist road.

In the 1950s both parties repeated their commitment to searching for ‘an alliance with the progressive bourgeoisie’ [8], at the very time repression against the working class organisations had been stepped up. Then, and later, it was the search for a compromise with the parties and forces of the political centre, and the attempt to form a multi-class alliance, which determined the political direction of both major parties. The various electoral fronts formed to fight the Presidential elections of 1958, 1964 and 1970, reflected the unequivocal devotion of both party leaderships to the politics of reform through the state.

These politics were reinforced under the Presidency of Jorge Alessandri (1958–64); his policy was to open Chile wide to foreign imports and investments, contracting new foreign loans to finance the infrastructural developments needed to attract foreign capital. The beneficiaries were once again the oligarchy, of which the Alessandris were prominent members; the resulting inflation hit the working class directly, but it also affected the middle classes. By the early sixties, both these sectors were becoming involved in a rising wave of mass unrest, which was spurred by the impact of the Cuban Revolution. [9]

The Alliance for Progress, formed in 1961, was the US response to the Cuban Revolution. It had a double purpose. First, to forge a common front against Cuba, ensuring Latin American support for both the economic blockade against Cuba and for the military coordination designed both to reinforce the blockade and ensure that the Cuban example would not spread. The other face of the Alliance was an alternative development strategy, bringing capitalist reforms which remained firmly within the mould of the world market as it existed. The strategy required new political instruments – bourgeois parties – to carry through these guided reforms. The Chilean version was the Christian Democratic Party under Eduardo Frei.

In 1964, Frei won 50.1% of the votes cast in the Presidential election (beating the Popular Front’s Salvador Allende). His policy was again dependent on foreign loans, enabling industrial production to expand; as employment rose, the domestic market would expand. At the same time, a land reform would intensify agricultural production and reduce Chile’s (considerable) food imports. This economic growth, it was hoped, would benefit the peasantry, the urban poor and the petty bourgeoisie, as well as create a new class of small farmers; together they would constitute the alliance which would provide Christian Democracy with its social base. Much was made of the ‘Chileanisation’ of the economy (the transfer of ownership to native capitalists). Yet this programme for growth reinforced Chile’s relationship with the world economy, since it was to be paid for through copper exports.

Frei’s ‘revolution in liberty’ very quickly proved to be neither. The determined resistance of the landed oligarchy, which Frei could not challenge, ensured that the 1967 Agrarian Reform Act remained a dead letter. [10] By 1968, the modest 2% annual growth of 1964–7 had fallen to zero, the foreign debt was spiralling upwards ($6.1m) and foreign capital was flooding in ($962m, compared with $789m in 1964). The Chileanisation of copper in fact brought a windfall for the multinational companies [11], since not only had the Chilean state bought their shares at inflated prices, but it was now directly responsible for all future investment in the copper industry (financed by further foreign borrowing), which continued to produce for a market dominated and controlled by the same multinationals. Yet 30% of Chilean workers still earned less than a living wage, consumer prices had risen by over 50%, and there were certainly more people out of work than the officially recorded 6% of the population.

Under Frei, expectations had risen and the peasants and slum dwellers had been able to organise for the first time; between 1968 and 1970, these groups were increasingly involved in mass activity. In industry, Frei’s plan for workers’ participation in exchange for no-strike undertakings moved even the trade union federation – the CUT – to call a general strike. And the failure of the agrarian reform had brought splits in the Christian Democrats, leading to the formation of MAPU. [12]

As the elections of 1970 approached, the bourgeoisie was divided. The National Party and the Landowners Organisation (SNA) had mobilised against Frei’s land reforms and presented their own candidate for President – Alessandri. The Christian Democrats were internally split, and their candidate, Tomic, represented the ‘left’ of the party. For many writers, it is that split within the bourgeoisie that is decisive in explaining the election of Allende in 1970.

In fact, the crucial element in 1970 was the progress of the class struggle itself. Whatever his differences with the oligarchy, Frei saw the fundamental threat as coming from the workers. In 1969 and 1970, as the level of strikes and land occupations rose at extraordinary speed, Frei mobilised the infamous riot police (the Grupo Movil), the carabinieros and the army against striking and demonstrating workers. The atmosphere in these last two years was tense and active. University students marched on Santiago in the climax of a university reform movement; peasants (and Indian communities) occupied lands without waiting for the law to take its tedious course, and whole communities ‘parachuted’ into empty city sites and built their shanty towns. The working class, for its part, made increasing use of strikes and occupations in pursuit of better wages and working conditions. On the land, 693 strikes in 1967 became 1,127 in 1969, and land occupations rose from 9 to 148 in the same period. In 1969, 230,275 workers were involved in 1,939 strikes – by 1970, 5,295 strikes drew in 316,280 workers. [13] This was the background to the election of Salvador Allende – candidate for the Popular Unity (UP) coalition – and the driving force that brought him to power.

Popular Unity in government

Popular Unity (UP) was the latest in a series of Popular Fronts involving the Communist and Socialist Parties, and this time including the Radicals, MAPU, and two other small organisations. While it gained the largest number of votes in the elections of September 1970 (36.2%), it did not receive an absolute majority – Alessandri won 34.9% and Tomic 27.8%. In order to assume the Presidency at all, Allende required the support of the Christian Democrats in Congress. And the price of that support was a document called the Statute of Guarantees, a series of concessions which were to prove of critical importance.

Since it was clear from the outset that the right wing parties would not support any radical measures, the framework of UP’s reforms was the existing legislation. Politically, the programme operated within the constraints imposed by a coalition of reformist parties including the Radicals, and a perspective announced ‘as designed to win over the middle sectors’. In many ways, the programme went little further than Frei’s; it, too, represented a programme for economic growth, based on raising the level of consumption, through a general wage rise, and thus taking up the slack in the economy. On the question of agrarian reform, it undertook to carry through the provisions of the 1967 Agrarian Reform Law. It promised attacks on the US copper companies, and its first act in government was to legislate for the nationalisation without compensation of copper – though, as we have seen, the companies had already withdrawn most of their investments from Chile during the Frei period. The programme undertook to take on the Chilean oligarchy – that 2% of the population whose wealth stemmed from the land, but whose interests now extended into industry, finance and the press. Nonetheless, compensation to expropriated landlords was to be generous. [14] And while the oligarchy was attacked, it was made clear that ‘enterprises where private ownership of the means of production will remain in force will in terms of numbers remain the majority’. [15] Overall, it was planned to nationalise 150 out of 3,500 firms (and in fact that figure was further reduced at a later stage), leaving 60% of industry outside the public sector.

Yet it was the Statute of Guarantees which established most clearly the limits of UP policy. The agreement, signed in October 1970, was an undertaking by Allende to respect the autonomy of the police, and the armed forces, and to refrain from interference with the press and mass media, education, and the Church. In effect, the price of Christian Democrat support for Allende’s assumption of the Presidency was the assurance that UP would not attempt to extend its control into any other institution of the state. The mass movement that had brought Allende to power, however, knew nothing of the Statute, and the level of class struggle increased throughout 1971. For Allende, this represented a serious problem, a threat to the politics of compromise and to the capture of the middle sectors. His early speeches, therefore, return persistently to two themes: one, the need to raise production and productivity as an urgent priority, and two, the need the restrict workers’ and peasants’ demands and actions within the limits of bourgeois legality.

It is a challenge to us to accomplish everything in legal terms ... History has broken with past patterns; our revolutionary path is the pluralist path ... It is neither an easy nor a short term task to build socialism. It is a long and difficult task in which the working class must participate with discipline, organisation and political responsibility, avoiding, above all, anarchistic decisions and irresponsible, impulsive acts. [16]

This was to be a recurrent theme in government statements, growing more insistent as the class struggle developed.

The first year brought a general wage rise of 38% for manual workers and 120% for white collar workers, unemployment fell to below 10%, 90 factories were nationalised and 1,400 estates (30% of Chile’s cultivable land) were taken into state ownership. Inflation fell and GDP rose by 8%. At the same time, the local elections of April 1971 registered a rise of 14% in the UP votes. These early; economic advances were not the result of socialist measures, however, but of orthodox Keynesian techniques whereby the state intervened to raise the general level of economic activity. Their initial impact was to raise the living standards of workers, while prices remained for the first time below the level of wage rises. But, as was to become clear by the end of the first year, none of these initial actions affected the structure of Chilean capitalism nor represented any serious inroads into the economic power of the Chilean bourgeoisie. The confidence expressed in the April vote was rapidly, to come into question. In May, Allende called in the MIR, a far-left group, for discussions concerning the growing number of occupations of urban and farm land. In June, he moved to restrain ‘illegal’ occupations, which the Communist Party simultaneously denounced as ultra-left provocations. In July, the bill for the nationalisation of copper received unanimous support in Congress. [17]

It was already becoming clear, however, that the honeymoon period would be brief. The United States, upon whose direct and indirect economic aid both Alessandri’s and Frei’s economic programmes had depended, acted rapidly to block further aid [18] and to call in Chile’s enormous debts – doing so just as falling copper prices were increasing Chile’s problems. From 1970 to 1973, virtually the only US aid to reach Chile was military assistance, which was directly administered by the armed forces. Other finance was channelled through private firms or directly to the right wing parties. [19] And while private capital was enjoying the fruits of the short-term boom, there was significant disinvestment and hoarding of goods, particularly food. [20]

This brought about two responses. From the urban middle class there were anti-government demonstrations characterised by the waving of empty pots, such as the one in November 1971 coinciding with Fidel Castro’s visit. From the workers the level of struggle rose rapidly; 1971 ended with the highest number of land occupations (1,278) and strikes (1,758) hitherto recorded.

The fundamental issue at the beginning of 1972, therefore, was not government legislation but, centrally, the intensification of the class struggle. It was this which moved the middle classes to even louder and more insistent protests. Radimiro Tomic, ‘left’ Christian Democrat, complained of

the illegal occupations of farms, smallholdings, shanty towns, rented land, commercial offices, factories, mines, schools, colleges, public buildings, roads and bridges. Illegal occupations are not only the work of the ultra-left; they are also the spontaneous actions of groups of peasants, workers and miners. [21]

In this sharpened atmosphere the tolerance of the ruling class to the Allende government became much reduced. The right used their control of Congress to impeach Jose Hoha, the Interior Minister, in January. In February they put forward a bill restricting Allende’s right to order nationalisations. In the light of this offensive two alternative strategies emerged – to encourage and strengthen the workers’ own struggles so as to create extra-parliamentary support for the government (as the left socialists were arguing), or to retreat via such stratagems as the appeal to the Constitutional Court (as the socialist right, Allende himself and the CP were arguing). [22]

At Popular Unity conferences, first at El Arrayan then at Lo Curro, the right-wing strategy won hands down (later on we shall examine why this happened). The results were immediate – the pace of nationalisation slowed down, talks designed to agree upon a joint economic strategy with the Christian Democrats began, and Socialist and Communist ministers began to take punitive action against workers in struggle: for instance on May 12th, a street demonstration in Concepcion produced clashes. The Communist mayor called in the infamous riot police, the Grupo Movil, which Allende had promised to dismantle (but could not touch because of the Statute of Guarantees). The Communist Party accused the MIR of irresponsibility, and denounced the ‘ultra-left’ for jeopardising further talks with the Christian Democrats.

The new Cabinet announced in June, in keeping with this turn to the right, was notable for the dismissal of Pedro Vuskovic, economics minister, a left independent who was closely identified with calls for further nationalisations and thus a particular target for right-wing attacks. In the press and mass media, the right had been guaranteed the largest audience through its ownership of a majority of newspapers, TV and radio stations. The Catholic University channel, Channel 9, became the province of a neo-fascist priest called Hasbun, whose constant hysterical attacks provoked a series of workers’ occupations. Here, too, the Allende government used the police to ensure the return of the station to its ‘rightful owners’. And a series of minor electoral victories for UP served only to encourage and harden the right of the coalition.

The implications of the political line adopted at El Arrayan and Lo Curro were most clearly illustrated in the government’s relationship with the army. While the assault of the right continued in the ideological arena, and in parliament itself, Allende time and again reaffirmed his commitment to the Constitution. At the conference of UNCTAD held in April in Santiago, for example, he protested that

Little weight has been carried ... by the fact that the nationalisation process, with all its implications and consequences, has been the clearest and most categorical expression of the will of its people, and has been conducted in full accordance with the exact dictates of provisions established in the nation’s Constitution. [23]

It has been argued that Allende’s constitutionalism was simply tactical – yet the repeated statements of UP spokespeople, including Allende himself, clearly indicated a complete acceptance of the notion that the army was neutral. Corvalan, Secretary of the Communist Party, argued that ‘the army is not a body alien to the nation, in the service of anti-national interests’, while Allende himself had pointed to the ‘patriotism of our armed forces, their traditional professionalism, and their submission to the civil authority’. [24] These declarations were presumably meant to legitimate the increasingly central role the army was coming to play throughout 1972. In March, the visit of General John Ryan of the US Army was followed by an announcement of increased military aid to Chile – the UP government had nothing to say. Instead, it called in the army to control events – first, in December 1971, during the March of the Empty Pots; then, in May 1972, they were called in to enforce a ban against a left-wing counter-demonstration in Concepcion. In July, members of an extreme left armed group were arrested for robbery and subjected to systematic torture at police hands. Several months earlier, the army had been called into the Chuquicamata copper mine to control a miners’ strike. Then, on August 18th, 400 armed police invaded the poor working class district of Lo Hermida in Santiago, leaving one person dead, another dying, and an unspecified number of injured. Several days later, Allende offered his apologies to the inhabitants – yet at the same time he condemned the activities of the ‘ultra-left’, thus legitimating the role of the police and the army on the one hand, and espousing the CP line of attack on the ‘violence of left and right’, on the other. And in September, in response to right-wing attacks on a radio station in Bio Bio province, Allende declared a state of emergency, thus handing effective control to the police and the army once again.

If Lo Hermida had taught Allende nothing, it served to reinforce the fears of the rank and file of the workers’ movement. The Popular Assembly of Concepcion, held in July and August 1972 with 2,000 delegates attending, called for the formation of a Popular Assembly (which was actually part of the UP programme), and, argued that the struggle for workers’ control must be stepped up at all levels. The final item in its closing statement called for the construction of a workers’ state. It was clear that the class struggle was intensifying, as October was to prove.

Early in October, Allende embarked on a new set of discussions, this time with the judiciary, aimed at ‘curbing the violence of left and right’. Then, towards the end of the month, the lorry owners’ organisation announced a national strike, ostensibly in protest at the plan to form a national transport system. The owners gathered the lorries in car parks on the city outskirts, removed key engine parts, and set up armed guards at the gates. The strike was joined by large numbers of shopkeepers, and several professional organisations – of lawyers and doctors – announced that they would also be joining the strike. The Christian Democrats refused to discuss the situation with Allende, who was clearly unable to decide what to do. In the event, it was the working class which determined the outcome of events. Forming Communal Commands and ‘cordones’, the working class took on the lorry owners and the capitalists directly. The result was defeat for the ruling class and the right, and a renewed confidence and strength among the working class. In struggle, they had forged new organs of control and had demonstrated where the power in society really lay.

For Allende, however, the central issue was to reimpose state control. Once again, he called in the army to enforce that control and ‘restore order’ – three generals now joined the Cabinet. [25] The key task was the return of the factories occupied during the bosses’ strike. And this in turn demanded the demobilisation of the workers. In that context, the entry of the military into the Cabinet was for the specific task of returning the situation to a normality which would allow the employers to take their revenge. [26] Equally, as far as UP was concerned, the immediate task was to pull back the workers’ organisations under the umbrella of the UP parties and the CUT. Thus, in the aftermath, official pronouncements attacked the cordones as ‘parallel organisations’ to the CUT. El Siglo, the Communist Party newspaper, for example, denounced them as anarchist forms of organisation; one spokesman argued that:

the task now is to find a way in which the Communal Commands can make their activities complementary to those of government organisations. In this respect it is essential that the Comuna authorities participate in the Commands. [27]

And the position of the Socialist Party was identical. [28]

The coming elections of March 1973 provided an ideal instrument, and UP activists worked hard to channel the energies of the workers into electoral activity. By January 1973, it was clear that the cordones had been effectively demobilised, though Allende attempted to cover himself by responding to some of the demands that had emerged in October. The government announced new controls over distribution, which brought vehement protests from the right. Allende then put the head of the Air Force, Bachelet, in charge of distribution. Simultaneously, the Minister of Economy, Millas, a CP member who had replaced Vuskovic, proposed the return of 123 occupied factories.

As the March elections approached, the rhetoric of UP appeared to take on a more left-wing character. Allende proposed a single chamber parliament, a more central role for the CUT and a general wage rise for lower-paid workers. Yet only three weeks earlier he had appealed to striking miners to return to work and moderate their wage demands. In the event, UP won the elections with an increased vote (43.4%). Yet when a MAPU document criticising the government for its concessions to the right was published a few days later, Allende demanded the expulsion of the MAPU members responsible. Fifteen were later expelled, and MAPU split over the issue.

It was clear that the higher level of working-class support for UP was a response to the left-wing electoral rhetoric; but it was equally an expression of a new confidence and strength gained during the struggles of October. If the working class believed that UP would carry forward the new stage of the class struggle, however, they were soon proved wrong. Within a month, Allende was responding to new attacks from the right, including threats to impeach the Cabinet for transgressions against the Constitution, by attacking the ‘ultraleft’ on television! Having failed to undermine the electoral support for UP, the right, and the Christian Democrats in particular, turned now to increasingly open attacks against the government. Street violence increased, and one confrontation followed another. Yet throughout May and June, Allende continued to denounce the left, and seek dialogue with the right.

The core of the right-wing attack was that UP had reduced the country to economic chaos. The shops were empty, the black market was rampant, and inflation was running above 400%. Real wages fell in 1973 by around 50%. [29] Clearly, the direct responsibility for the crisis could not be laid at UP’s door. The economic chaos was consciously created by the bourgeoisie, through economic sabotage, the export of capital, and the systematic hoarding of goods. The United States, too, was exercising constant economic pressure through insistence on the repayment of debts and a blockade on aid to the government. And while welfare payments, and the wages of the poorest-paid had risen during the first two years, the fact was that the area of the economy under state control was small and barely increasing.

The contradictions came most clearly to the surface over the strike of the copper miners, which began in April 1973. The issue was whether the miners should insist on an inflation-linked cost of living increase. Allende asked the miners not to press the issue, using the promise to raise the wages of the lowest-paid as a lever against them. But the miners refused to accept Allende’s arguments. They were not a privileged class, but a key sector of the working class whose relatively higher wage levels had been won through decades of bitter struggle against the copper companies. In reality, Allende was asking them to sacrifice the gains they had won in struggle in order to appease the right and encourage the bourgeoisie to reinvest. When the strike persisted, Allende denounced the miners as ‘traitors’ and ‘fascists’ and when the miners marched to Santiago, they were greeted by ranks of police who attacked them with tear gas and water cannon. The bitterness and anger of the miners was carefully exploited by the right – fuelling even more the confusions of the left – for even they attacked the miners. The MIR, for example, ‘criticised the use of force, but attacked the miners for “economism”, even though they were fighting to maintain their living standards in an economy that remained capitalist’. [30] Yet the miners had not only been the backbone of the working class movement throughout its history; they had also given their support to the UP time and again in the period since 1970.

On June 29th, the tank regiment of Santiago under Roberto Souper declared a coup. It failed before it began. Yet it served once again to demonstrate the readiness of the working class to take on the bourgeoisie and conduct its own struggle directly. The working-class organisations that had appeared briefly in October 1972 emerged again, though their documents (and above all the newspaper of the joint committee of the cordones, Tarea Urgente) showed a greater political understanding and an even more combative spirit. Once again the factories were occupied and distribution controlled directly. And this time the workers’ organisation began to organise the defence of the factories. This was too much for Allende, who now reserved his attacks exclusively for the workers. He turned again to the army, inviting them to join the Cabinet. They refused. He offered posts to two leading Christian Democrats. They also declined. Yet, despite this refusal, the major speeches from government supporters at the time referred repeatedly to the armed forces’ neutral role and effectively continued to call on them to enter the Cabinet and take responsibility for the ‘restoration of order’. [31] For the workers, the message was clear: work harder, accept more sacrifice, ‘production is also revolution’ and ‘collect signatures against civil war’. As far as Allende saw it, the key task at this point was to remove the historical initiative from the working class and restore it, by force if necessary, to the state. One month later, in August, the military entered the Cabinet of UP for the last time. What had changed their mind? Two events; the first was the government’s agreement to use the Arms Control Law. Ostensibly passed to deal with the right, the Arms Control Law was administered directly by the armed forces – and was, in the reality of the situation, an invitation to the armed forces to disarm the working class. When the lorry owners embarked on a second national strike on July 26th, it was in the knowledge that their chief enemy, the organised working class, was under systematic attack. On August 9th, the Financial Times reported:

Availing themselves of powers given them under the arms control law, the services set about searching factories and leftist enclaves. These raids, carried out with little delicacy, incurred the wrath of the left. Few arms have apparently been turned up by the searches, and while nests of weapons have been uncovered by the police in the redoubts of wealthy rightists, and the present wave of violence certainly comes from the right, the military’s attention has been focussed exclusively on the left. [32]

In the course of these ‘arms searches’, militants, union activists and members of left parties were tortured and murdered. Allende knew – the left press contained literally hundreds of stories of what was happening; Chile Hoy carried dramatic photographs and eye witness reports. But Allende and his government did nothing. They could not hear the message coming from the worker at the Vicuna McKenna cordon:

... what we want is a revolution, we don’t want reformism, we want people’s power once and for all in Chile. We don’t want generals in the new Cabinet, because we think they want to stop the revolution. [33]

The other path: the struggles of the working class

None of what occurred in Chile before and after September 1973 can be understood outside the context of the class struggle, which in Chile had reached new and unprecedented heights between 1970 and 1973. The vast majority of the millions of words written about Chile have presented a picture in which the protagonists were a beleaguered government on the one hand, and a rapacious imperialism on the other. Yet that picture is deliberately false. For the dynamics of the Chilean process were determined by the relationship between a working class and a bourgeoisie locked in bitter struggle. At the key moments, in October 1972, and JuIy 1973, the UP government was transfixed by the spectre of a bourgeoisie that had taken to the streets. Yet it seemed equally fearful of a working class which developed new forms of organisation in response to that threat. And there was no doubt that the UP leadership, though it was incapable of mobilising the working class, still retained political authority within it, an authority it used to hold back the struggle on each occasion. Government spokespersons harangued workers as to the irresponsibility of organising outside the existing institutions of the state, and denounced as ‘anarchistic’ any concept of an independent organisation of workers. As the tempo of class struggle quickened it was the union leaders and the UP ministers who became the most adamant defenders of the bourgeois state.

These new forms of workers’ organisation, the cordones, emerged in October 1972, in response to the bosses’ strike. But they did not arise out of thin air. They were the outcome of an upward spiral in the class struggle, the product of workers’ activity that had moved to a higher level in the last two years of the Frei regime and continued to develop after Allende’s election. In the late 1960s the level of strikes rose rapidly and during 1971 had already risen to quite unprecedented heights. It also became much more generalised: many more unemployed were drawn in to the struggles and a higher proportion of the strikes were over questions of solidarity with other workers in struggle. [34] The class struggle on the land also increased as never before, and the spontaneous occupation of the land by landless peasants spilt over into the towns as workers squatted on urban plots owned by speculators.

Faced with the rising tide of struggle, the UP government attempted to incorporate it into the state. They used several instruments to this end. One was the JAPs, committees originally set up under Frei to rationalise the distribution of goods in working class districts, and including local shopkeepers. There was certainly a problem for workers, who were dependent on speculators and middlemen for their supplies – but the JAPs could in no way take on the fundamental conflict between workers and their bosses at the point of production. Yet the JAPs served to shift the location of struggle away from production, suggesting that the key issue was distribution, and that it was there that workers could improve their lot.

Other instruments more immediately attacked workers in struggle. The CUT, for instance, set up the Committees to Supervise Production in November 1970, with the explicit aim of raising productivity and convincing workers to exercise restraint in wage demands. They were used to attack the miners when they put forward a 45% wage demand four months later. The government itself issued its Basic Norms of Participation for Workers in the Private Sector, appealing to workers to maintain production, improve productivity etc.; industrial peace was the price to be paid in the private sector for the ‘gains’ supposedly being made in the nationalised or ‘Social’ sector of the economy. It was needed to secure the cooperation of the ‘non-monopoly’ sector of the bourgeoisie which the UP government continually sought, and it ensured that the occupations by squatters and peasants were condemned by them as irresponsible and a threat to continuing dialogue. [35]

The government’s instrument of reform was still the Christian Democrat Agrarian Reform Law of 1967, which was directed at the large landowners and excluded all landholdings below 160 acres (80 hectares); the law, then, was intended to protect the agrarian capitalist class, especially those beneficiaries of earlier reforms who were now themselves employers of labour. The process of legal takeover was long and tedious, so the peasant organisations simply occupied land directly; and the pressure for lowering the size limit to 80 acres (40 hectares) became insistent, especially since many of the landlords, allowed to keep their machinery and the best 80 hectares of land, were in fact profiting from the reform, and would continue to do so as the black market expanded.

From mid-1971, the UP government began to denounce the land takeovers with increasing stridency, accusing the MIR of organising the occupations. While it was true that the MIR had turned to organising among peasants and shanty town dwellers (see next section), their influence was minimal. The high level of mobilisation was the result of two years of developing class struggle in the countryside. The accusations levelled against the ‘ultra-left’, therefore, were a deliberate attempt to ignore that reality and to cover the contradiction at the heart of UP policy between the rhetoric of the ‘transition to socialism’ and the reality of constant compromise with the bourgeoisie.

By 1972, that contradiction was to emerge in the heartland of the economy, in the urban industrial areas which involved nearly three quarters of the economically active population. Here, too, the last years of the Frei regime had witnessed a rising tempo of struggle, stemming from the general strike of 1968, organised by the CUT, and accelerating permanently from then on. It was the wave of strikes and working-class mobilisations at every level that frightened and divided the bourgeoisie in 1970, and which brought UP to power. But the class struggle could not simply be turned on and off at will. Through 1971, the number of strikes grew, as workers interpreted the UP victory as a signal to intensify the fight to raise their general living standards and working conditions. For UP, however, the core of their economic policy was higher productivity, particularly in the state sector. Small though it was (21.9% of the total) [36], the state sector of the economy was the key, since many of the benefits envisaged in the programme were to come from higher profits in this area. The 90% of the working class not involved in the state sector of the economy, however, were hostages to the alliance with the bourgeoisie, ‘so that those workers within the private sector who were disciplined Popular Unity activists found themselves under an obligation to hold back their struggles in order to allow industrialists to “develop and grow” ... and any strike or takeover could be interpreted as “causing difficulties in the process” or “trying to leapfrog stages in the process”.’ [37]

For UP, the key issue was control – control over the workers’ movement through the CUT, and the unions included in it, and the maintenance of the political hegemony of the mass reformist parties   CP and Socialist Party. While the latter was certainly sustained at least until October, the ability of the CUT to control events was much more limited; only about 30% of the industrial workforce were unionised, plants of 25 workers or less were prevented by law from organising into a union. Yet it was precisely these sectors who had begun to press their employers in the tense atmosphere of the time; and it was the more organised workers, on the other hand, who saw the attempts by the bourgeoisie to sabotage their plants. It was a period of struggle and mobilisation – and a time when sector after sector of workers entered a battle for improved wages or conditions for control of the factory itself. Until mid-1972, the, tensions were contained within the CUT, but the signs began to emerge early in 1972. At the beginning of the year, a Congress of Textile Workers rejected government proposals for participation and demanded workers’ control of the industry and accountability of officials. From then on, factory congresses took place regularly, and the idea began to spread. Then, in May, a series of confrontations in the agricultural area of Maipu over the refusal of a judge to implement the law against a local landlord brought support from the workers of the adjoining industrial area of Cerrillos, who were themselves occupying the Yarur textile factory in the area. Out of this joint action was born the first cordon, formed in June to coordinate the struggles of a range of local organisations and led by the organised workers of the area. But the cordon embraced unionised workers as well as local squatters’ organisations, committees of distribution (JAPs) and neighbourhood committees.

The first clause of the first document produced by the cordon stressed ‘We shall support President Allende’s government insofar as it interprets the struggles and mobilisations of the workers’. [38] It called for an aggressive pursuit of the policy of expropriation of industry and land, and for the creation of a range of new state institutions under direct rank and file control. It demanded ‘the repudiation of the bosses and the bourgeoisie’ and called for the creation of ‘a popular assembly to replace the bourgeois parliament’. The next step demanded a revolutionary political leadership, capable of organising and leading the struggle to overthrow the state. But there was no such leadership, and the Popular Assembly which eventually convened in Concepcion in July/August exhibited a confusion in its understanding of its relationship to the government that was never clarified. The underlying conception remained that of mobilising to press the government to act, rather than developing an independent line of action.

The October crisis exposed the contradictions. As the lorry owners struck and were joined by whole sectors of the middle class, factory owners attempted to close their gates and stop production. Allende, as usual, was ambivalent and conciliatory, calling for a restoration of order. But the working class responded directly. The cordon was spontaneously generalised, as the various base organisations came together to counter the bosses’ strike. Lorries were forcibly taken and put back on the road, factories were occupied and kept at work, distribution was organised directly and shops reopened by local distribution committees – the Communal Commands – while medical personnel on the left kept the hospitals open. The so-called leadership of the workers’ movement was left behind by this qualitative leap in the level and nature of workers’ self-organisation. When the bosses’ strike was defeated, it was clear that it was the Chilean working class that had inflicted that defeat. While there are no figures for the numbers of people involved in the cordones, the two largest cordones, Cerillos-Maipu and Vicuna McKenna involved some 600 factories between them. Tens of thousands were directly involved, judging by the range and level of the mobilisations.

Yet the cordones declined in the aftermath of October. The confusions implicit in the Concepcion Popular Assembly about the Allende government being a workers’ government, about how the task of class conscious workers was to support it and on occasions to convince it to act – all these continued right through the October events. There was no voice on the left arguing that the way ahead was through the workers’ own organisations taking the road to power [39], and warning that the new Cabinet of Allende plus the generals – which was the ‘solution’ of the UP government – would inevitably be an obstacle to achieving it.

For their part the MIR was unwilling to accept the leadership of the working class, in which it had little influence, in the broader Communal Commands; the Left Socialists and the MAPU turned to internal struggles within their party, and the Communist Party was concerned only to denounce the intensification of class struggle as ‘a manoeuvre encouraged by the imperialists and the reactionaries using elements of the ultra-left and the MIR in particular’. [40] Once again, the denunciation of the ‘ultra-left’ was a veiled attack on the independent initiatives of workers.

Although after October the cordones declined, many of their leading committees remained in existence and continued to meet. UP responded by trying to incorporate some of the demands, particularly in the area of distribution [41], while reestablishing control by the CUT of the working class movement. Given its limited nature, this effectively meant excluding many of the workers who had participated most actively in the cordones. This achieved, the political activists who had been involved in the October struggles were now called upon to work for the March elections – thus diverting their attention away from the self-activity of the working class that had occupied the centre of the historical stage for a brief moment.

UP emerged from the congressional elections of March with an increased vote. For the bourgeoisie, who had anticipated a fall in UP support, the results of the vote were the final proof that their struggle would now have to be conducted outside parliament. The working-class organisations that had emerged in October and been largely demobilised in subsequent months, were now slowly reconstituted. The initial spark, in February 1973, was the Millas Plan – the government’s decision to return the vast majority of the occupied factories to their original owners. This met with universal resistance and led to the reconstitution of several of the leading cordones and communal commands. [42] As the tone of the propaganda of the right became increasingly strident and public in its decision to move to direct confrontation, the cordones and the commands slowly re-emerged – largely despite the parties of the left, who had called upon their best militants to work around the March elections and, in the case of the Communist Party, had specifically forbidden its members from participating in cordones or comandos.

Yet even before the events of June and July, the fundamental issues posed by the course of the class struggle in Chile – and the failure to understand them on the part of the revolutionaries – were posed clearly around another, and apparently unrelated issue. In April, the copper miners struck for their full 100% wage rise. Allende refused but offered productivity bonuses instead. The strike posed key questions. Government calls for sacrifice and productivity were particularly directed at the copper miners, who were both the best paid and the best organised members of the industrial working class. Yet the miners, like all other workers, had seen their living standards and real wages fall through the second half of 1972; they had seen the government make concession after concession to the bourgeoisie, they had experienced direct repression of previous strikes by the police, and they had heard the Communist Economy Minister, Millas, call for the return of the factories, occupied by the workers ‘once the danger was over’. Against such a background, UP’s assertions that it was still a workers’ government in transition to socialism must have seemed increasingly hollow and empty. The miners persisted in their strike; and UP escalated its attacks against them, culminating in a police attack on a miners’ march to Santiago. The left of UP – MAPU and the Socialist left – and the MIR were totally unable to respond to this new situation. While MAPU, in particular, had been openly critical of the UP leadership [43] and called for the formation of a ‘revolutionary pole’ together with the Socialist left, they were still talking in terms of an internal opposition within UP. Faced with the miners, however, they simply fell in behind UP’s denunciations, though they were critical of Allende’s tactics. For the same reason, they did not use their influence within the cordones to open the question of the independent organisation of the working class. The MIR offered no alternative analysis. As a result, the disillusioned miners became susceptible to the manipulations of the right.

It was one opportunity missed. But the critical opportunity came on June 29th, with the ‘tancazo’ (the attempted coup). This time the cordon organisation existed already in skeleton, and it became flesh within a matter of hours. In the few areas where no cordones existed, they were created instantly. [44] In the weeks that followed, new bourgeois offensives, culminating in the lorry owners strike of July 26th, met with united working class resistance. And there was a qualitative change from October; spontaneously, in the struggle, the working class itself moved on from slogans calling for the defence of the government, to demands for: ‘A hard line’, ‘Fascists to the wall’ and ‘Close the National Congress’. Factories were again occupied, but the documents issuing from the cordones made it clear that this time they would not be returned under any circumstances. Militias were organised to defend the factories and the working-class areas. In one clothing factory whose workers were mainly Christian Democrats, the change had come dramatically:

Before June 29th, politics was never discussed at the El As factory. The majority of the women are supporters of the Christian Democrats, and the few women who were left wing did not discuss things any more actively. Today, a few weeks after the takeover, the workers are organised in committees and in vigilance brigades, and are discussing the CUT’s statements and disagreeing with them ...

Maria Sandoval, with the CUT statement in her hand, explained: ‘Look, this statement here is a betrayal of the working class. The CUT’s solution is to talk with the bosses and reach an agreement with them, giving them back the factories. I was never very much one for mixing in politics, we never talked very much about the process ... but if we workers want power, we shall never get it giving back factories, however small they may be.’ [45]

And the Coordinating Committee of the Cordones asserted in a major document that:

The Industrial Cordones should be based on the broadest working class participation, giving free rein to the creativity and revolutionary initiatives of the class. We must struggle against sectarianism and bureaucracy that takes decisions at a superstructural level and without reference to the masses. [46]

Although the same document rushed to assure the government and the CUT that there was no intention to set up ‘parallel organisations’, it was clear where the initiative lay; it was still not too late for revolutionaries to forge the leadership of the movement into an instrument for taking on the state. Yet the left displayed only confusion and indecision. When the rank and file sailors of Talcahuano denounced the coup preparations taking place in the Navy, the left protested at UP’s indifference to their exposures, and issued calls into the air for action against the coup. How different it would have been had the left achieved root in the working class movement which had created what was effectively the embryo of dual power, an alternative order lived out day to day in the cordones and the communal commands. Had they done so, had they moved the working class, independently of government, to mass support for the sailors, the balance of forces might have changed definitively. [47]

UP and its leadership, its control finally lost, turned again to the right and to the generals. As the official leadership of the working class retreated, and the left vacillated before the sheer force of the workers movement, the working class was left to fight that unavoidable battle under the worst possible conditions. If, as Trotsky argued in reference to Germany, the leadership retreats in the face of a rampant bourgeoisie, then the battle will not be avoided – it will merely be conducted under the worst possible conditions from the workers’ point of view, and ‘be transformed into a series of frightful, bloody and futile convulsions’. [48]

Where was the left?

Popular Unity was a coalition of several parties, but it was clear from the outset that political hegemony within it lay with the Communist Party, as expressed in the concept of an ‘anti-monopoly alliance’ setting out to ‘win over the middle sectors’. As Luis Corvalan, CP General Secretary, told the 14th Party Congress in 1969:

in a popular government we conceive the existence of the opposition, within the limits of the laws of the country, which will of course be inspired in the interests of the people not of the privileged few ...

We Communists consider that in a regime of popular government, and later on, in the conditions of socialism, each of the people’s political trends will retain their particular characteristics, all religious creeds will be respected, and therefore there will be ideological and political pluralism, notwithstanding the struggle of each for its own ideas. [49]

Economics Minister Vuskovic put it more succinctly:

Certain interests will be affected, but these will not include the vast majority of non-monopolist industrialists. On the contrary, they will be offered extensive possibilities not only of permanence but of growth. [50]

The coalition would be built around a programme of nationalism, gradualism and economic growth which would reassure all but the most recalcitrant sectors of the bourgeoisie. If UP could build such an alliance where Frei had failed, it would be because it could deliver the working class to the bargaining table. The CP had already demonstrated its commitment to the alliance by accepting the Statute of Guarantees; it was to repeat that commitment in the three years of UP with its attacks on the cordones and comandos as ‘parallel organisations’ or ‘anarchist forms’. In October 1972, and July 1973, it was the voice of the Communist Party that called loudest for the return of the factories, and to put all ones faith in the armed forces, denouncing:

those reactionaries who have begun to seek ways to drive a wedge between the people and the armed forces, maintaining little less than that we are intending to replace the professional army. [51]

The implications of this attitude became clear in their response to the sailors who denounced the imminent coup in August 1973. Corvalan responded by delivering them up for trial to the very people whose complicity in the coup plot they had denounced. Corvalan explained, ‘we must let the Military Office of Prosecution unroll the entire skein and the state security organs take the corresponding actions’. As the coup approached, the CP reserved most of its bile for those who threatened the alliance with the middle class (‘the tactics of the ultra-left objectively played into the hands of reaction’). [52] Thus, on the September 4th demonstration, the Communist banners proclaimed the middle way – ‘No to the violence of Left and Right; No to Civil War’.

Allende and the leadership of the Socialist Party accepted this line without question; the UP programme itself represented a victory for the ring-wing leadership of the Socialists over its own left. The first test came with the Statute of Guarantees, which the SP refused to accept at first; yet it finally joined the government that had signed it. The Socialist right accepted the CP notion of the ‘capture of a part of power’, which was explained in this curious formulation:

In Chile a situation has been created whose special feature is that, from a class point of view, dual power is expressed in the existence of a line of demarcation within the existing state apparatus itself, rather than in a confrontation between the bourgeois state apparatus and an alternative state expressing the interests of the working class and its allies. [53]

A Socialist militant, Pio Garcia, refuted this absurd idea:

The fact that in Chile the popular forces have gained control of government, or the executive branch of the state, has given rise to incorrect formulations which call into question the whole strategic orientation of the revolutionary process. For example, the simplistic formulation that ‘part of power’ has been won. The bourgeois state still exists in Chile ... The formula ‘dual power’ corresponds to a situation in which, as in Russia in 1917 when the Soviets and the provisional government confronted one another, there coexist two powers which cannot by definition exist within a single state apparatus. [54]

What this revealed was the existence within the Socialist Party of two clearly distinct currents. The battle between them has shaped the internal life of the Socialist Party since 1940. Time and again the left within the party has managed to pass resolutions of a revolutionary manner, like this one passed in 1967:

The Socialist Party, as a Marxist-Leninist organisation, declares the taking of power as the strategic goal to be achieved by this generation, to establish a revolutionary state which will liberate Chile from dependency and from economic and cultural backwardness and begin the construction of socialism.

Revolutionary violence is inevitable and legitimate. It necessarily results from the repressive and armed character of the class state. It is the only road to the capture of political and economic power and to the subsequent defence and strengthening of that power. Only by destroying the bureaucratic and military apparatus of the bourgeois state can the socialist revolution be consolidated. [55]

Even after Allende’s victory, the statements emerging from the Socialist left continued the same theme. In May 1971, for example, the transition to socialism was seen as an immediate task:

The Socialist Party sees the revolutionary process as an uninterrupted march, with neither stages nor premature consolidations within the existing capitalist system, towards full conquest of power by the workers, aiming simultaneously at fulfilment of still unrealised democratic tasks and of new socialist tasks ... Considered in isolation as a goal in themselves, reforms are no more than reformism ... They become revolutionary when inserted into an overall revolutionary strategy pointing toward replacement of one class by another in management and control of the new society ...

The UP government will have revolutionary content to the extent that it stops leaning exclusively on bourgeois institutionality and helps open the road to a new institutional order. [56]

The government, by contrast, argued that

A conscious, organised and disciplined people, together with the unequivocal loyalty of the Armed Forces and the Caribinieros, is the best defense of the Popular Government and the best guarantee of our national future. [57]

It was equally clear that the Socialist left saw that the initiative must come from below, and that this would be the driving force, ‘pushing forward the process and deepening class contradictions’. Yet this was seen as taking place within definite constitutional limits; the cordones, for example, were therefore regarded as ‘complementary organisations to the people’s government which would bring new life to the existing organisations of the working class, but under no circumstances organisations dependent on the government’. And this view was closely reflected in documents issued by the cordones themselves, whose leadership in many cases belonged to the Socialist Party: ‘In taking over factories, estates and other enterprises, and in strengthening their own organisations, they prepared for the defence and continuing advance of the popular government, and continued the struggle to initiate the building of a socialist society.’ [58]

Clearly the Socialist left did have an orientation towards the rank and file, and a concept of socialism built from below. Yet none of this led them to understand that the development of the struggle would necessarily produce a conflict between a government committed to a reconciliation of class interests, and a working class movement ‘struggling to initiate the building of a socialist society’. Nonetheless, the question of the military power of the state and how it could be dismantled was discussed internally. In May 1971, Altamirano, the party’s General Secretary, said:

Armed confrontation between classes is inevitable ... Reaction will again knock at the barracks door. Lenin’s words are pertinent to our situation: ‘It seems impossible to fight against a modern army; the army has to become revolutionary ...’ In reality, the indecision of the troops, inevitable in any truly popular movement, leads to a real struggle for the army as the revolutionary struggle intensifies. [59]

It is important to stress that these ideas were, in many cases, the official policy and programme of the Socialist Party, and it was on the basis of them that large numbers of workers joined the Socialist Party and accepted its leadership in the cordones. It was on the basis of this mass influx of members [60], of the growing influence of revolutionary ideas and of a rising working class membership attracted by the explicitly revolutionary policies of the Socialist Party, that the Socialist left approached the UP Conference at El Arrayan with confidence. After all, the party’s programme suggested that they would win the day. Instead, the El Arrayan meeting served to confirm the reformist direction of Allende’s government. Far from supporting workers’ struggles, and debating how to deepen and extend the march towards socialism, the Conference concluded:

Popular Unity recognises a legitimate place for the broad strata of small and middle proprietors to exist and develop. We have time and again repeated that the programme is not contrary to the interests of the non-monopolist private sector, which has always had and still has real contradictions with the big monopolistic enterprises in production and distribution. [61]

The Socialist left set out to defend a position that was internally contradictory and self-defeating. Its revolutionary rhetoric could not conceal the fact that it repeatedly expressed its unequivocal support for the Allende government; it saw the government as an essential component for the achievement of socialism at that point in time, irrespective of its policies or composition. For what, in the real situation, were the available alternatives? On the one hand, quite simply, the fall of Allende, and the return of power to the right; or the establishment of workers’ power on the other. As Allende took his government further and further to the right, along the road of collaboration and capitulation to the bourgeoisie, the Socialist left faced a stark choice; either they must abandon their commitment to a revolutionary strategy, or they must abandon the conception that workers’ power could be built in a complementary relationship to the UP government. The choice was of real moment; for it was clear that the Socialist left had real roots and an acknowledged leadership among the leaders of the cordones and the comandos – a far greater weight than any other organisation in the rank and file organisations. In practice, however unwillingly and unconsciously, however much it was argued in terms of immediate tactical considerations, it was the first route they chose – revolutionary rhetoric notwithstanding.

Had the Socialist left taken its own rhetoric seriously, it would have split from the Socialist Party to build a distinct, revolutionary party which would counterpose the power implicit in the cordones to that of the government and the parties of Popular Unity that supported it. Undoubtedly, that would have broken the very Socialist Party from which they had emerged. Of course, this cannot be achieved overnight, under the pressure of the moment – as many Socialists discovered at terrible cost on September 11th. You cannot both induct workers into a party committed to a version of reformism, and prepare to destroy that very party at the same time. That much has been revealed time and again in the history of the working class movement. To give but one example, consider the case of Rosa Luxemburg in 1914. For 15 years she had correctly pointed out the bureaucratic and opportunistic nature of the Kautskyite centre of the party; yet she remained a member of that party. Faced with the party’s complete surrender to the forces of the German state at the onset of war, she found herself isolated, with no organised following, and no vehicle for arguing her views. Her biographer described the consequences of her failure to build a revolutionary party early enough:

Both Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin suffered nervous prostration and were at one moment near to suicide. Together they tried on 2 and 3 August to plan an agitation against the war; they contacted 20 SPD members with known radical views, but they got the support only of Liebknecht and Mehring ... Rosa sent 300 telegrams to the local officials who were thought to be oppositional, asking their attitude to the vote [in favour of war credits by the party in the German parliament] and inviting them to Berlin for an urgent conference. The results were pitiful; Clara Zetkin was the only one who immediately and unreservedly cabled support. [62]

In Chile, as the cordones developed, their leaders, who had joined the Socialist Party because of its revolutionary ideas, found that, far from providing a political instrument to carry the struggle forward, their membership of the Socialist Party imprisoned them and tied them to the existing state apparatus. In their statements, they tried to reconcile the irreconcilable – but in the end they fell back from the brink, from the challenge for power. It was noticeable, at the key moments of struggle, in October 1972 and July 1973, that the Socialist Party adopted no position as a party, completely abdicating political leadership. But the same was true of a Socialist left whose continuing alliance to the state silenced it when that very state sent the army into the factories in July 1973.

Could it have been otherwise? Was there a general demand from the active rank and file for a revolutionary party? Clearly not, at least explicitly. Yet the practice of workers engaged in occupying factories, controlling the streets, arming themselves, albeit in a piecemeal and disorganised way, and insisting that there be no capitulation to the military or the bourgeoisie, represented just such a demand. [63] But it went unanswered.

The silence that greeted the mass struggle pointed to a deeper irresolution, an unwillingness to break with a number of the central theoretical ideas that entrapped the Socialist left. First and foremost, there was the question of the state. While recognising the need to dismantle the armed force of the state, it continued to maintain that another part of the same state apparatus, the executive, could function in an opposite way and act as a bulwark of socialism. There were two fundamental errors here. First, it assumed that there was a separation between the government and the army – in fact there was none; the generals were inside the government itself. Since the Statute of Guarantees ensured that the executive would under no circumstances invade the prerogatives of the military, it could only mean that the generals would progressively ‘invade the prerogatives’ of the government – which is, as we shall see, exactly what happened.

Yet even if this had not happened, it would still have involved a gross misunderstanding of the nature of government in capitalist societies, a misunderstanding which Marx exposed a hundred years earlier in his critique of the German socialist Lasalle. Like UP, Lasalle had argued for a socialist sector in the economy ‘in order to pave the way to a solution of the social question’ through ‘state aid, under the democratic control of the toiling people’. Marx derided this position:

Instead of arising from the revolutionary process of transformation of society, the ‘socialist organisation of the total labour’ ‘arises’ from the ‘state aid’ that the state gives ... and which the state, not the worker, calls into being. It is worthy of Lasalle’s imagination that a new society can be built with state loans just as well as a new railway. [64]

As regards demands by the workers for state intervention, Marx was clear that:

they are of value only insofar as they are the independent creations of the workers and not protégés either of the governments or of the bourgeoisie. [65]

Of course, ‘between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other’; but, Marx argued, ‘there corresponds to this also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat’. In other words, the transition period from capitalism to socialism can only begin after the working class has decisively smashed the bourgeois state. It is only the failure to understand this, and the conviction that the transition had already begun (which was the argument put forward by Allende) that can explain their condemnation of the striking miners of El Teniente in May 1973. For had it been otherwise, instead of supporting the state against the workers, they would have recognised the need to develop (workers’ struggles to the point where they would decisively smash it.

The precondition for such a decisive step, of course, would have been the existence within the workers’ movement of a party constantly and consistently arguing the need to smash the bourgeois state and to replace it with the instruments of direct power that the Chilean working class were creating. Yet the Socialist left did not argue this; and the reason lies, at least in part, in their very conception of the party. For they did not recognise in the cordones the potential centre of an alternative power, but saw the process developing at two different but parallel levels: the rank and file, confronting local and partial problems, on the one hand, and the government, resolving the problems of society, on the other. In reality, this led to the inevitable subordination of the rank and file to the government. A revolutionary party would have had a crucially different understanding of the relationship between the party and the working class. Even at their best, the Socialist left never rose above the notion that it was the party that would interpret the wishes of the class and itself carry through the social transformation. They remained unwilling or unable to fight for the leadership of a struggle for the self-emancipation of the class – thus they failed to provide any kind of direction at the key points of struggle; they could not judge the class struggle on the basis of the tempo of real events and the real confrontation between the classes. Instead, they interpreted these events in the aftermath, and always in the context of a political debate within or between parties rather than providing an interpretation that would yield new instruments to carry the struggle forward.

If the Socialist left represented the major pole for workers seeking revolutionary ideas, the UP leadership reserved most of its attacks on the ‘ultra-left’ for the movement of the revolutionary left, the MIR. The MIR was formed in 1965, under the impact of the Cuban Revolution. Its politics were Guevarist, devoted to the preparation of armed struggle, which would be conducted by a small group of professional revolutionaries. Insofar as it discussed mass work at all, it was in the context of a ‘rearguard’, supplying new guerrilla recruits and maintaining those already in the field. Thus the revolution could be conducted by the revolutionaries on behalf of an undistinguished mass of ‘the people’. The need to define a revolutionary class, whose self-emancipation would herald the transformation of society towards socialism, never arose. The internal structure of the party reflected this militarist concept; it was a command structure, and there were no facilities for internal discussion or political debate.

Staying out of the UP coalition, it responded to the 1970 election victory with a fiery left rhetoric but with the central tenets of its politics unchanged; socialism was not about workers’ self-emancipation and the role of revolutionaries was not to build a party out of the workers’ own struggles leading the construction of workers’ councils and the smashing of the existing state apparatus. Instead the MIR leaders found themselves drawn behind the politics of the Socialist and Communist parties. It was inevitable that they would, given their own theoretical poverty and the common ground that they shared with the major reformist parties: the belief that socialism was to be gained by an elite acting on the behalf of the ‘masses’, that it could only succeed if the ‘more privileged’ (e.g. many of the leading sectors of the Chilean working class like the miners) made sacrifices, and so on. Given these substantial points of agreement, the rise in the class struggle in the late 1960s merely propelled the MIR into the broad orbit of the Socialist left. In 1969 it suspended armed struggle in an attempt to build a mass base among slum dwellers and peasants (where the influence of the established reformist parties was minimal), but its politics prevented it from doing anything significant once it had gained a hearing. It set up front organisations of peasants and slum dwellers (its workers’ organisation, the FTR, was not set up until 1972), but when faced with the reality of workers in struggle, more often than not it responded by meekly following the line of the UP government – with disastrous results. So while the MIR was able to help in the growth of the comandos, over the really crucial question – the role of the cordones – it was completely on the wrong side, siding with the CP and the SP right wing and denouncing the cordones as parallel organisations that undermined the CUT. Even when the class struggle reached the new heights of October 1972 and July 1973, it still called for the building of a ‘left current’ in the CUT.

In short, in these crucial areas the MIR simply reflected the reformist politics of UP. It is true that in July 1973, Miguel Enriquez, the party’s General Secretary, called for an armed uprising in a famous speech. But this was empty rhetoric in the context of the attacks already being directed against the working class. It is futile to issue calls for revolution, when you have failed to offer support in the struggles that precede that giant step. Yet the MIR had condemned the El Teniente miners for ‘economism’ when they went on strike over the demand for the full indexation of wages. Such lack of support almost certainly drove many of the strikers into the hands of the right, which did give them support as a stick to beat the UP with. So, while the MIR declared itself militarily and organisationally independent of the UP government, politically it remained fatally dependent on it.

As events moved towards their final and devastating outcome, Trotsky’s comments on Germany provide a bitter summary of the key issues that faced, but were ignored by, the Chilean revolutionary left in the MIR and the Socialist Party:

The workers understand that the great battle requires firm leadership. They are not frightened by the strength of fascism nor by the necessity of a ruthless struggle; they are disturbed only by the uncertainty and wavering of the leadership, by the vacillations in the moments of greatest responsibility. Not a trace of depression ... will remain in the factories just as soon as the party raises its voice firmly, clearly and confidently. [66]

The denouément

On August 14th 1973, Joan Garces, one of Allende’s closest advisers, wrote him an open letter. It was a response to the inclusion of the military in the Cabinet:

If the bourgeoisie manages to provoke an economic crisis nothing could be more harmful to the popular movement than to find itself with a working class that is disorganised and incapable of acting. If today the workers are sceptical and suspicious of the government, demobilised, and with their spirit undermined, what is there to prevent the fall of our government? [67]

The question was answered on September 11th. Yet, as Garces emphasised in his letter, the preparations for the coup were already being made, quite openly, and with the active complicity of Allende’s government. Neither were they secret. Towards the end of July, the left press reported that the military and the police were using the Arms Control Law to raid the offices of unions and left-wing organisations, arresting and torturing militants. Rank and file sailors and airmen had already publicly warned the government that everything was being made ready for a coup – yet Allende ignored their warnings. In a sense, the die was already cast. At the beginning of August, the atmosphere was electric. The lorry owners were on strike, this time indefinitely (i.e. until the government fell). The right-wing terrorist organisation, Patria y Libertad, had announced publicly that it had gone underground in preparation for the final confrontation. Father Hasbun was broadcasting daily on Channel 9, promising imminent revenge against the left. The Christian Democrats announced at the end of July that they were suspending all negotiations with the government. On August 9th, Allende announced the formation of the UP-Generals Cabinet. Nine days later, General Ruiz, Minister of Transport, resigned and then called for a coup in a TV interview. On the 23rd, General Prats, Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces and the constant hope of UP, who saw him as the guarantee of the ‘patriotism’ of the armed forces, resigned his post. On the 24th, his replacement, Augusto Pinochet, took his seat in the Cabinet.

On August 17th, Chile Hoy reported that Punta Arenas, in the far South, was already ‘an occupied city’:

Since June 29th, this city has been under virtual military occupation. The streets are patrolled by an impressive number of soldiers, who stop and search pedestrians and workers who happen, by some coincidence, to be all supporters of the left. Ten days before their attack on the factories on the 4th of August, the three provincial commanders of the different branches of the armed forces made a public statement, advising the working class that any attempt on their part to form industrial cordons would be stopped immediately ... [68]

The statements coming out of the cordones and mass organisations were defiant and confident; the working class responded to the bosses’ strike, for example, by forming a series of regional co-ordinating committees. Yet Allende ignored all the signs, and the leaderships of the UP parties made appeals to the armed forces, and called for calm. All, that is, except the Socialist Party, whose General Secretary Altamirano managed to combine, as usual, a fiery rhetoric with a continuing support for a government that had surrendered the initiative to the military [69], and appeared more afraid of the working class than of the military.

On September 4th 1973, a million people marched through the streets of Santiago to commemorate the third anniversary of Allende’s election. Their presence was testimony that they were ready to fight, to defend their class against an armed bourgeoisie. But there was no revolutionary leadership to grasp that historic responsibility and coordinate and arm the mass workers’ organisations. The political leadership of the workers’ movement remained in the hands of the reformists – and for them, the battle was lost. Helios Prieto recorded the strangely muted, depressed atmosphere that pervaded that mass demonstration [70] – yet those who filed through the streets were the same workers who weeks before had built new organs of struggle, the highest expression of the workers’ movement yet seen in Chile, and the embryos of a new, alternative state power. Despite the chanting, the Chilean, workers clearly felt that the final act of the class struggle was at hand – and that they were impotent to prevent it.

For the bourgeoisie, the military coup was the final, and only option that remained to them. One by one, through the previous three years, they had used the other instruments under their control; and on each occasion, the prompt and determined action of the working class had robbed them of the triumph. The initial loss of the Presidency was certainly a blow, but the right still had their majority in Congress to block legislation. [71] Yet time and again, the mass movement of workers seized the initiative and drove UP to make concessions to them – albeit minor and often temporary – and adopt a slightly more defiant attitude to the right.

The bourgeoisie then escalated its actions, turning to its second set of options – the economic strike. In October 1972, the coordinated campaign around the lorry owners strike was intended to bring the economy to the point of collapse, yet again, it was the working class which turned the tables on the bourgeoisie. The inclusion of the military in the Cabinet in November, then, has to be seen as an attempt by Allende to win back the confidence of the right wing, and to separate the government from the actions of its supporters in the working class. Certainly, in the period leading up to the Congressional elections of March 1973, the right began to debate two strategies – the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ coup. The latter represented a combination of economic and political assaults on the UP government – what was called, with conscious irony, the ‘Russian Marshals’ strategy. [72] This involved the creation of economic chaos which would lead to a general disillusionment with Allende and an overwhelming victory for the right at the March elections. In fact March showed increased support for the UP government, a support based on the incorporation into active struggle of whole new sections of the working class through the cordones and the comandos and despite the leadership of UP.

After march, Christian Democrats, the National Party and Patria y Libertad came to recognise that from their point of view, the ‘hard’ coup – the physical destruction of the working class movement – was now the sole alternative. The bourgeoisie had played each of its cards, confident in the knowledge that Allende would retreat and compromise at every turn. If they chose, in the end, to opt for the most barbaric of all the options available to them, it was because of the qualitative advances that had been achieved by the working class movement itself. For while the executive could be neutralised by the bourgeoisie’s control over the other state institutions, the working class could not be held back so easily. In that light, the bourgeoisie (and it was the whole bourgeoisie) played its final card – the armed destruction of the government and the working class movement itself.

On the morning of September 11th, the Moneda Palace was bombed and Salvador Allende killed. At just after 9 in the morning, he made his final broadcast. On those final words, a myth has been built – a myth of a heroic leader defending his people to the last. Yet there is no room in the legend for the man who surrendered power to the bourgeoisie, who ignored the systematic assaults on the working class before the coup, who lost hope and confidence long before the coup came. Allende’s last words are symbolic and moralistic – but what is most notable about them is that they have nothing to say to the working class. It seems that the message is directed only at the hagiographers, the historians of some ill-defined future:

They have the power, they can oppress us, but social processes cannot be held back by criminal acts or force of arms. History is ours and it is made by the people ...

Workers of my country. I want to thank you for the loyalty you have always shown me, the faith you have shown in one man who was merely the interpreter of your search for justice, who gave his word to respect the Constitution and the law, and who kept his word ... [73]

It was an acknowledgement of defeat. For the working class, still ready to fight, the morning brought the bitter realisation that nothing had been prepared, that the calls to arms and defiant speeches had been nothing more than rhetoric. At one of the better organised factories one militant complained that:

When we got there (the Indumetal factory) the workers had already occupied the factory with the most rudimentary weapons. We gave out AMK guns and showed them how to use them. We had some bazookas and some machine guns. The most disturbing factor, though, was the lack of any specific plan, any direction and especially the lack of contact and coordination with other places where there was resistance. We’d no idea what was going on outside the factory. [74]

In fact they were among the very few whose small stocks of arms had not been confiscated in previous weeks by the military. The general picture was one of confusion, impotence and isolation; the working class was left to take the brunt of a coup that, by 1974, had murdered 30,000 of their number.

Yet as the torture and the terror drowned the Chilean working class in blood, reformism around the world was hard at work, drafting the explanations and the excuses that would cover over the real and terrible lessons of that ‘peaceful road to socialism’ now littered with so many dead.

Chile and the left

A number of explanations were offered in the aftermath of the military coup. Each of them uses Chile as an example to illustrate a political perspective at home. Yet Chile as a political theme has had a wider implication than simply to serve as a model for analysis. It has been used to cover a generalised shift to the right among Communist and Social Democratic parties worldwide, and to justify a renunciation of the very concept of the transformation of society and of a socialism that is the act of the producers of wealth themselves. In the aftermath of September 11th the very word Chile has become synonymous with the ‘historic compromise’ and that plaintive ‘farewell to the working class’.

What are the arguments?

For the Communist Party, the supine attitude of the Allende government before the bourgeoisie was correct and justified by the fact that: ‘Far from having a majority of the population, Allende got only 36% of the popular vote in 1970. The objective therefore was to win more and more people to support the government.’ [75]

Had that happened, the coup might have come earlier and might have been even more bloody than the one that did take place; certainly there is not the slightest hint in the above remarks of how the actual instruments that carried out the murder of the Chilean working class – the army and their big business backers – would be disarmed by it.

But even if we place that on one side, the question still remains: how could such a majority be obtained? The bosses’ strike, the virtual complete elimination of all western aid, the reduction of international credit to a fifth of its pre-1970 level – all strongly politically motivated [76] – meant that there was not the least chance of winning over the ‘non-monopolist bourgeoisie’ or the petty bourgeoisie to the side of Popular Unity. Quite the contrary, the government became for them more and more a government of chaos and disorder. Their acquiescence could be gained – in the absence of a viable carrot – only by the stick. Only the reality of the power of an armed and aggressive working class could hold them back from wholehearted support for the coup. But that, of course, points in exactly the opposite direction to the strategy of seeking a consensus with sections of the bourgeoisie.

What this suggests is the complete impossibility of winning over these layers given the international economic arena within which Chile was (and is) inserted. At the time this quite elementary point was strongly denied within Communist Party circles, content as they were to talk about the British, the Italian, the Chilean etc. road to socialism, as if each national road were unaffected by the dynamics of the world capitalist economy of which they were all part. Even as late as September 1973, for instance, Marxism Today was quoting CP General Secretary Luis Corvalan that ‘Always we have maintained that in the conditions existing in Chile there is a real possibility to complete the anti-imperialist and anti-oligarchical revolution, and march towards socialism without civil war, although naturally maintaining an intense class struggle’.

No sooner had the coup occurred than everything was sharply reversed. Instead of the ‘real possibility’ of the ‘march towards socialism’, we were told instead by Italian CP leader Berlinguer that ‘No one can deny the decisive role played by the presence and active intervention of US imperialism in events in Chile. [77] On the one hand then the viability of the national road to socialism is asserted; on the other it is denied, because of the international nature of the world capitalist system.

But more was at stake than the wretched logical contortions through which the CPs found themselves twisting after the September events. The purpose of the CPs’ newly-found discovery of the international nature of world capitalism, was not after all to retrospectively side with Trotsky against Stalin about ‘socialism in one country’ as opposed to international revolution in 1924, but rather to add substance to the claim that from 1970 to 1973 Chilean socialism was constitutionally viable until murdered from without by an American plot. This quite deliberately obscured the fact that it was Chilean soldiers who murdered 30,000 Chilean workers; that it was Chilean capital that prepared the conditions for the coup, and whose interests were served by it. The protagonists of the Chilean experience of 1970–73 were not nations but classes, whose struggle and conflict reached a new and unprecedented level. The solution of September was a class solution. The insistence on the external plot keeps alive the notion of a ‘national alliance’, a multi-class block joined by its opposition to imperialism. Yet under the pressure of the class struggle itself, no compromise was sufficient to keep that spurious alliance alive. UP’s insistence on continuing to make concessions to the right when it had abandoned even the pretence at constitutionalism simply served, in the reality, to strengthen and reinforce the forces ranged against the Chilean working class.

The logical conclusions of this line of thinking did not take long to be drawn:

What light does all this throw on the prospects of a transition to a socialist society under peaceful and constitutional conditions? I believe it underlines the importance of maintaining both unity and the broadest possible front of support. This may mean what the Italian Communists now call an ‘historic compromise’ – i.e. governing down the pace of social change to what is acceptable to the potential allies or the potential neutrals among the middle class. [78]

We must work to constantly increase the weight and ensure the eventual predominance of those tendencies that, with a sense of historical and political realism, recognise the necessity and maturity of a constructive dialogue and agreement among all the popular forces ... we are the first to realise that the march towards this prospect is not easy and cannot be hurried. But neither must we think that the time at our disposal is infinite ... the necessity to open at long last a sure road of economic development, social renewal and democratic progress ... make it increasingly urgent and pressing to arrive at what we call the great new ‘historical compromise’. [79]

The politics that derives from the Chilean experience the conclusion of the ‘historic compromise’ has at least the virtue of consistency. The logic of the parliamentary road to socialism, of a process whose tempo will be finally determined by sections of the bourgeoisie, must and does lead to an abandonment of socialism. What would have satisfied the Christian Democrats in Chile? What rate of progress towards socialism would the Chilean bourgeoisie have found acceptable? The answer is simple and obvious – no progress in the struggle for socialism is acceptable to capital. For the struggle for socialism is not the pursuit of negotiated benefits for workers, but a fundamental transformation of society, which sets the majority of society and its interests at the heart of all social and economic decisions. The conflict between those interests and the interests of capital are neither circumstantial nor tactical; they are permanent and necessary.

There is a second layer to this argument, that points again to the relationship between the party and the class. For it rejects the central tenet of Marxism – that socialism is the act of the working class itself. It is the producers of wealth who are the protagonists of the conquest of socialism. And that struggle cannot be turned on and off at will by the parties, though they can – as Chile shows – significantly undermine the strength of the working class in that struggle. It is capitalism itself that generates the class struggle; the issue for socialists is how they respond to that struggle. Do they bring all their forces to bear to assist, support and organise the working class to win, or do they adopt a position of neutrality which objectively abandons the working class to their fate. In Chile, between October and July, the struggle was at its height; it could not be wished away.

Finally, there is the other argument put forward by the Communist Party; ‘the tactics of the ultra-left MIR objectively played into the hands of reaction ...’ [80] That was the slogan of UP within Chile as the coup approached; it was also the argument of the bourgeoisie, expressed in El Mercurio. Yet if, as the argument suggests, violence was an inevitable result of rising struggle, then how can socialists argue that the correct response was to disarm the workers? Even had the movement totally failed in an assault on power, could the consequences have been as grave as the monstrous statistic of dead and tortured that were produced by the military junta? For it was the working class that took the full brunt of the barbarism of Pinochet. Why? Because the ruling class were permitted, in pursuit of the historic compromise, to choose their time, to select their weapons, and to disarm the working class with government approval before they made their final move. If the right did not move in October 1972 or in July 1973, there has to be some explanation – and it lies in the very strength and confidence of the working class movement, a strength that had been shattered by September 1973.

The logic of the analysis of the CPs (and that of most of the rest of the reformist left in Labour and Socialist parties) was therefore clear – even if it was seldom articulated: to abandon the struggle for socialism altogether. The only alternative to this that can reasonably be drawn is thus that there is no parliamentary road to socialism, that there is solely the road of direct, and at the crucial moments armed struggle by the working class itself. So when sections of the Fourth International chanted ‘Armed road, only road’ in the solidarity demonstrations that followed the coup, they were entirely correct to do so. [81]

The Militant Tendency too, seemed to have got it pretty much right at the time when they argued that what was needed was to ‘Arm the workers against reaction!’ [82] They were even clearer about the way in which parliamentary parties necessarily lead workers away from the only road to socialism. À propos of the Chilean coup they concluded:

History knows only two kinds of democracy. There is capitalist democracy, which (in Lenin’s words) ‘is bound to remain restricted, truncated, false and hypocritical, a paradise for the rich and a snare and a deception for the exploited, for the poor.’ And there is proletarian democracy, which must be based on workers’ councils, election of officials with the right of recall, an armed people, average skilled workers wages for all administrators, rotation of state duties and so on. [83]

Yet the politics of the Fourth International groupings did not stop them, a few years later, from joining those very same parties that in 1973 they were rejecting as examples of parliamentary cretinism. As for the Militant tendency, not only were they already deeply immersed in the Labour party at the time, but more recently they have been claiming that:

... in the pages of Militant, in pamphlets and in speeches, we have shown that the struggle to establish a socialist Britain can be carried through in Parliament, backed up by the colossal power of the labour movement outside. [84]

In short what needs explaining in all these cases is how a correct line on armed struggle vs. parliament in the Chilean case could lead to such apparently opposed politics more recently.

The realisation that the only road to socialism is the armed road is in fact only a half-truth, and a dangerous one; for the outcome of the UP period was not determined on the morning of September 11th, but long before. The distribution of arms demanded, as a prerequisite, the political organisation of the working class for the assault on state power. Yet we have seen that the revolutionaries of Chile did not prepare the working class movement in that respect, that they fell back from the responsibility of leading, of creating a revolutionary organisation. Yet they continued to call for armed risings, even though those who were doing the shouting remained within Popular Unity, refusing to break with the reformist parties, as the class struggle demanded. In those concrete circumstances, the call for arms serves to disguise the reality. It can and did lead workers to believe that Popular Unity was leading the working class into a revolutionary process, which it clearly was not. Thus, when the coup came, the most advanced workers seriously expected UP to provide arms – and were deeply perplexed when it did not. Those who called for the arming of the workers without working to create the political conditions under which the working class could challenge for power were guilty of directly generating that illusion, and of leaving the working class naked and atomised when the reckoning came. It is only legitimate to raise the slogan as part and parcel of a political position that defends the whole working class against the assaults of the capitalist state (whoever heads that state), and which sets out to break workers from reformism in order to build the revolutionary party. The Socialist left, then, made two sorts of error, each of them fatal.

Firstly they failed to support all workers in a struggle against the Allende government. Obsessed by the mistaken idea that nationalised industry was one of the building blocks out of which socialism was already being constructed in Chile, they inevitably found themselves supporting the cabinet against the workers in nationalised industry in crucial disputes (as at El Teniente for instance), and even occasionally in the private sector as well (so that the nationalised sector would not be compromised). With such a leadership the workers’ movement could not but help faltering.

Secondly they mouthed a virulently revolutionary rhetoric which drew the best elements of the working class into the Socialist party instead of out of it. They provided a left cover for the real power in the party – Allende and the right – when what they should have provided was an alternative organisation whose ultimate aim would be to smash the reformist parties altogether, in the struggle to raise the power of the cordones above that of the existing bourgeois state apparatus.

The realisation that the armed road was the only road was, therefore, quite insufficient in itself to stop the coup. Altimirano and the left in the Socialist Party, after all, as we have seen, were already arguing for exactly this and were convincing a majority within the party on this point, but only by organisationally and politically breaking from the party could this mean anything of substance.

These are the real lessons of the Chilean coup, and they are ones that those who call themselves Trotskyists within the Labour party will, of course, never draw. That is why the key passage in the Militant Tendency’s account of the 1973 coup is not the passage we have already quoted but rather the following one: ‘There is only one conclusion’, namely that, ‘the leadership and programme of the workers’ organisation was false’. They should have been:

exposing the role of the banks and the monopolies, and demonstrating to them [the workers] the enormous superiority of a planned economy. [85]

But you can only accept this if you see nationalised industry (brought into being by parliament of course) as more important than the highest achievements of the workers in struggle, such as the cordones (which don’t even get mentioned). Besides, as we have seen, the failure was not so much over having a ‘false programme’; indeed the programme of Altimirano and the Socialist left was, as we have seen, much more revolutionary than their actions – but, crucially, it served to incorporate a whole layer of revolutionary workers, via the Socialist Party, into the UP government, and therefore also into the existing bourgeois state apparatus. Given such politics it is only a short step to abandoning altogether a politics rooted in genuine revolutionary Trotskyism.

Finally, there is the argument advanced by Ralph Miliband. [86] While critical of Allende and the UP on the one hand, it argues on the other that the conditions for a qualitative advance in the workers’ struggle were simply not present. Arguing from a kind of pragmatism, Miliband suggests that the key issue is one of timing. Yet in saying ‘that the establishment of an extreme form of council (or soviet) democracy on the very morrow of a revolution as a substitute for the smashed bourgeois state ... constitutes an impossible projection which can be of no immediate relevance to any revolutionary regime’, Miliband appears to be totally ignorant of the existence of the cordones and their class character. The Soviets, or cordones, are not creations after the revolution; they are the organs of workers’ democracy generated by the class in the struggle. And in Chile, they did exist. Perhaps, Miliband suggests, the UP government could ‘at least have been able to effect very considerable changes in the personnel of the various parts of the state system’. Yet this falls into exactly the reformist error; the Statute of Guarantees ensured that UP would not intervene elsewhere in the state – and that was the condition of assuming power. Even had the personnel changed, the function of the bourgeois state would have remained the same. Allende and his allies, Miliband suggests, decided to proceed by careful observation of the law and constitution, and stick to it. ‘Yet it may well be that what was right and proper and inevitable at the beginning had become suicidal as the struggle developed. What is at issue here is not “reform versus revolution”; it is that Allende and his colleagues were wedded to a particular version of the “reformist” model.’

In the end this argument dwells on questions of timing, of tactics, of quantitative detail; yet it must, for its argument to survive, ignore the very developments that marked a qualitative shift in the level and nature of the class struggle in Chile, and which no reformist politics, by definition, could have led or understood. It was not a matter of theory; the reality of events abolished the middle way.

Could it have been otherwise?

Chile, between October 1972 and July 1973, entered a revolutionary crisis. The rising tempo of class struggle produced new organisations of struggle, a real, existing foundation for the alternative state power based on the cordones. Yet the left, the potential revolutionary leadership, was trapped within the bourgeois state by its allegiance to a politics of reform which it often amended but never confronted. And in the end it could do nothing in the face of that most savage of ruling class assaults. Yet there was an alternative possibility. Had the left unequivocally supported workers in struggle, independent of UP and the state and based on ‘All power to the cordones’, the real foundations of a revolutionary party might have been laid. There was much talk, especially from the MIR, about splitting the army. Yet when the cracks appeared, when the sailors exposed themselves to the wrath of their officers, and exposed the coup, where were the mass demonstrations of workers applauding their courage and supporting their action? Who called for workers to boycott all supplies to the naval base, until these men were released? If just one sailor had made his declaration and got away with it, the crack would have opened wider and wider.

In the great historical moments, it may be that the revolutionary change comes because one soldier feels the confidence to turn his gun away from the workers’ demonstration, because one cordon disarms the invading police or the boss and his thugs. It is a matter of moments. But if the moment is lost, if the working class, having fought to bring the struggle to this point, finds itself abandoned, criticised and suddenly robbed of the right to make its own history, then the consequences last for years, and are terrible.

The tragedy of Chile is that there were revolutionaries there, but they – and consequently those who acknowledged their leadership were unable to recognise the revolutionary moment, or prepare for it. As the struggle rises again, those who died should at least have their names inscribed in the annals of a movement that has learned, and learned well, from their sacrifice.


1. See Latin America Weekly Reports for February 4th, April 22nd and May 27th 1983.

2. The reasons why Seguel, the miners’ leader, drew back from the original strike call, are less than clear. What is certain is that he was interviewed at great length by the US ambassador after the April conference.

3. See below, The denouément.

4. Birchall & Harman, Chile: end of the parliamentary road, International Socialism 62, September 1973, p. 10.

5. The standard academic work on this whole period is A. Angell, Labour and politics in Chile, Oxford 1972. See too L. Vitale, Historia del movimiento obrero en Chile.

6. On the early labour movement see Recabarren, Ohras and the work of Vitale and Ramirez Nocochea.

7. The same was true of most of the Latin American Communist parties; Cuba is an example, see Binns/Gonzalez, Castro, Cuba and Socialism, in International Socialism 2:8, Spring 1980.

8. See F. Casanueva and M. Fernandez, El Partido socialista y la lucha de clases en Chile, Santiago 1973.

9. For the most detailed economic analysis of the period see, S. Ramos, Chile una economia de transition?, Cuba 1973; on the earlier period see A. Gunder Frank, Capitalism and Underdevelopment, London 1972.

10. On Christian Democracy and agrarian reform see C. Kay, Agrarian reform and the transition to socialism in P. O’Brien (ed.), Allende’s Chile, New York 1976, pp. 79–105 and Agrarian reform in Chile in D. Lehmann, Agrarian reform and agrarian reformism, London 1974.

11. The Anaconda company, for example, had 16.6% of its total operations in Chile – yet it derived 80% of its total world profits from Chile.

12. A second group, under the ex-Minister of Agriculture under Frei, Jacques Chonchol, left in 1971 to form the Christian Left, IC.

13. The figures for 1970, with a far larger number of strikes without a proportional increase in the number of workers involved, point to a very important phenomenon – the increasing involvement of workers in small factories who were outside the CUT structure because firms with less than 25 workers were not allowed a union.

14. Under the law, landlords were allowed to keep the best 160 acres of land, generally including both the land and the machinery, which the big landowners either sold or immobilised.

15. The full UP programme is in A. Zammit (ed.), The Chilean road to socialism, Brighton 1973; and S. Allende, Chile’s road to socialism, London 1973, pp. 23–51.

16. Ibid. p. 139.

17. Why should the National Party and the Christian Democrats support the nationalisation of copper? Most importantly, because it was the quid pro quo for the Statute of Guarantees; because their forces were still in slight disarray and they were anxious not to discredit themselves; and the Christian Democrats could hardly oppose a measure they themselves had set in motion.

18. See CIA memorandum from The ITT Papers, quoted in New Chile, no. 1, Sept/Oct 1972.

19. It also included doubling the number of Walt Disney products that were exported to Chile through their distributors there, the Edwards family; Edwards was also Vice-President of Pepsi Cola, a member of the oligarchy, and one of the main architects of the external assault on UP.

20. See Raul Silva, The legacy of Salvador Allende, in Evidence of the terror in Chile, London 1974, p. 115.

21. Morning Star, 7th August 1972.

22. Cf. speech by Volodia Teitelboim, quoted Birchall/Harman, p. 11.

23. Allende: op. cit., pp. 192/3.

24. Corvalan, quoted in Birchall/Harman, p. 11; Allende in op. cit., p. 141.

25. The only public repudiation of the move came from the Christian Left, who resigned from the Cabinet.

26. As they did in Arica, for example. See Socialist Worker, January 13th, 1973.

27. Jorge Insunza in Chile Hoy, no. 26, December 1972.

28. H. Del Canto, in Ibid.

29. For a detailed account of the economic situation see O’Brien et al., 1977, chapter 6, pp. 123–160.

30. Birchall/Harman, p. 12.

31. See the speech by Luis Corvalan, in Marxism Today, September 1973.

32. Birchall/Harman, quoted p. 13.

33. Chile Hoy, August 1973, quoted in O’Brien et al., 1977, pp. 180–181.

34. In 1971 there were 1,758 strikes on the land, compared with 1,580 the year before, and 1,278 land occupations compared with 456 (Kay, op. cit., p. 84).

35. Cf. Allende’s May Day speech, in Allende, op. cit.

36. A. Nore, Political economy of the Allende regime, in O’Brien (ed.), 1976, p. 57.

37. Patricia Santa Lucia, Industrial workers and the struggle for power, in O’Brien (ed.), 1976, p. 133.

38. See O’Brien et al., 1977, pp. 170–171.

39. Only one independent workers’ paper existed, La Aurora de Chile, and its central concern was the internal struggles within the Socialist Party.

40. P. Santa Lucia, op. cit., p. 141.

41. On food distribution, for example, it created an Inspectorate of the state distribution agency DIRINCO, which could expropriate businesses after inspection. But the process was long, tedious and extremely bureaucratic and the number of inspectors far too few to cope. In fact, very little was achieved in this way.

42. See Santa Lucia, op. cit., passim.

43. See the MAPU document in Chile 1973, ni reforma ni revolution, Medellin 1973 (this little volume contains some interesting documents and articles) also reproduced in MAPU, one of the collections of documents of Chilean parties published in Paris by Politique-Hebdo in 1974. See too MAPU, Octobre 1972.

44. Santa Lucia gives the most complete list of cordones, op. cit., Appendix, pp. 161–165.

45. Chile Hoy, quoted in O’Brien et al., 1977, pp. 175–176.

46. Santa Lucia, op. cit., pp. 153–155. See also Ni reforma ..., p. 85.

47. Cf. the debate reproduced from Chile Hoy in Ni reforma ..., pp. 88, 110.

48. Trotsky, Fascism, Stalinism, United Front, IS 38/39, August 1969, p. 14.

49. K. Clark, Chile, p. 83 (quoted).

50. Quoted in Santa Lucia, op. cit., p. 132.

51. Corvalan, in Marxism Today, September 1973.

52. Quoted in the British CP pamphlet, Chile: solidarity with popular unity, p. 17.

53. Quoted in Santa Lucia, op. cit., p. 134.

54. Ibid.

55. G. Smirnow, The Revolution Disarmed: Chile 1970–73, London 1974, p. 103.

56. Ibid., p. 49.

57. Allende, May Day 1971.

58. Santa Lucia, op. cit.

59. Smirnow, op. cit., pp. 14–15.

60. Though there is no documentary evidence of this mass influx, a Chilean comrade tells how by early 1972 the Socialist Party had had to abandon candidate membership, and the twice-yearly ceremony to induct members into the Party in groups given a special name – Marx group, Lenin group, etc. In early 1972, membership was given to a Marconi group, named after the theatre that had to be booked to accommodate the numbers.

61. Smirnow, op. cit., p. 22.

62. P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg, quoted in C. Harman, The Lost Revolution, London 1982, p. 24.

63. The Panamericana Norte cordon, for example, declared ‘NOT ONE ENTERPRISE WILL BE RETURNED. On the contrary, WE SHALL GO ON EXTENDING THE SOCIAL PROPERTY AREA. And in case anyone has any doubts WE SHALL REMAIN PERMANENTLY MOBILISED IN DEFENCE OF OUR RIGHT TO DECIDE AND TO GOVERN.’ In Santa Lucia, op. cit., p. 148.

64. Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, Selected Works, vol. 2, Moscow 1962, p. 30.

65. Ibid., p. 31.

66. Trotsky, op. cit., p. 15.

67. C. Taufic, Chile en la hoguere, Buenos Aires 1974, pp. 37–40.

68. Quoted in O’Brien et al., 1977, pp. 201–202.

69. Altamirano, SP General Secretary, for example, declared after the tancazo of June 29th, ‘Never has the unity between the people, the armed forces and the police been as great as it is now ... and this unity will grow with every new battle in the historic war we are conducting’, Le Monde, 16/17th September 1973.

70. See Helios Prieto, Chile: the gorillas are amongst us, London 1974, p. 48.

71. See M. Gonzalez, Ideology and culture under Popular Unity, in O’Brien (ed.), 1976.

72. Cf. I. Roxborough, The Chilean opposition to Allende, in Ibid.

73. Taufic, op. cit., p. 34.

74. Quoted in Chile trade unions and the resistance, Chile Fights 11, p. 3.

75. J. Woodis, Morning Star, September 17th 1973, quoted in Chile and the parliamentary roaders, International Socialism (first series) no. 63, October 1973.

76. NACLA’s Latin American & Empire Report, January 1973.

77. E. Berlinguer, Reflections on the events in Chile, Marxism Today, February 1974, p. 40.

78. E. Hobsbawm, The labour movement and military coups, Marxism Today, October 1974, p. 308.

79. Berlinguer, op. cit., p. 50.

80. See note 52.

81. See Dossier on Chile, International, Summer 1973, pp. 1–6.

82. Militant, March 1971, p. 2.

83. Chile, lessons of the coup, in Militant, 21st September 1973, p. 4.

84. Quoted in P. Goodwin, A tendency to reform, Socialist Review, no. 50, January 1983.

85. Militant, 21st September 1973, p. 4.

86. R. Miliband, The coup in Chile, Socialist Register 1973. The quotes are from pp. 467–469.

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