Chile 1973: Heroism was not enough

The international workers’ movement celebrated the election of Allende’s socialist government in Chile in 1970. Three years later, a CIA-backed military coup swept the dictator Pinochet into power. In an article first published in the September 1998 edition of Socialism Today, issue No.31, TONY SAUNOIS, secretary of the Committee for a Workers International (CWI), explains how this tragedy unfolded and the lessons that persist today.

On 4 September 1970 Salvador Allende, Unidad Popular (UP) candidate, won the Chilean presidential elections with 36.3% of the vote. He defeated the hated leader of the right-wing Partido Nacional (PN), Jorge Alessandri, who polled 34.9%, with the candidate of the populist capitalist party, the Christian Democracy (PDC), Radomiro Tomic, trailing third with only 27.8%.

This election was not simply a ‘routine’ change in the presidency. It unleashed a revolutionary process which brought the working class into confrontation with the Chilean ruling class and US imperialism. Three years later, on September 11, reaction triumphed as the military seized power in a bloody military coup that was partly organised by the CIA.

The reaction of the Chilean ruling class and US imperialism was all the more ferocious because it was terrified by the sweep of the revolutionary movement which went far beyond the intentions of the UP leaders. It was the revolutionary dynamic of the masses, and not the actions of their leaders, that placed the capitalist system in danger.

The tragedy of the situation that developed was that the crucial subjective factor, a genuine Marxist revolutionary party, was not present to channel the revolutionary process to a conclusive victory. The tragedy occurred not because of the weakness or unwillingness of the working class to struggle. Nor did reaction triumph because it was too powerful for the working class to defeat it. Allende’s heroic death in 1973 – as he defended the presidential palace – is proof enough that the sincerity and even the heroism of the workers’ leaders was not in question. The weakness was the wrong programme and ideas that many of the leaders defended. These were wholly insufficient to take the revolutionary process through to a conclusion and replace capitalism in Chile with a regime of genuine workers’ democracy.

Allende’s election triumph was greeted with tremendous enthusiasm not only by Chilean workers but by workers internationally. It also took the Chilean ruling class by surprise, who were thrown into disarray after the result became clear.

Allende, from the Partido Socialista Chilena (PSCh), led the six-party coalition dominated by the PSCh and the powerful Chilean Communist Party (PCCh). Both he and his party were self-proclaimed Marxists. Never in Latin America had a coalition overwhelming dominated by workers’ parties, formally adhering to Marxism, won a presidential or general election.

Had the UP leaders taken advantage of the balance of forces, which were overwhelmingly in favour of the working class and the left, and taken decisive measures to mobilise the workers and sections of the middle class, a relatively peaceful socialist transformation could have been accomplished.

Instead, they tried to slow down the revolutionary process that was developing from below, attempting to placate sections of the Chilean ruling class and reach agreement with them. The leaders, especially Allende and the PCCh leadership, put their faith in the ‘constitutional loyalty’ of the armed forces and dismissed the prospect of the generals overthrowing a democratically elected government.

Others on the left-wing of the UP (the PSCh left, led by Carlos Altamirano, and the Movimiento Izquierda Revolucionario – MIR – formed in 1965 following a student split-off in 1963) opposed this confidence in the armed forces. But although they earnestly wanted to push the revolutionary process forward to a successful conclusion, they did not offer a clear programme or take sufficient measures to confront the capitalist state that ultimately crushed the workers. They were unable to meet the historic challenge that was presented to them.

Apart from this crucial subjective factor, the main objective features for a successful revolution led by the working class existed and matured between 1970-73: the ruling class was divided, especially in the immediate aftermath of Allende’s electoral victory; the working class was prepared to fight to the bitter end and developed new organisations of struggle; and the middle class was looking for an alternative and important sections supported the workers’ movement.

Shifts in society

This situation had taken time to develop. It followed the turbulent administration of Eduardo Frei’s PDC, from 1964-1970. This capitalist government had swept to power – with 56% of the vote – promising ‘Revolution in Liberty’, state intervention and land reform. It ended by resolving none of the problems facing either the working class or the middle class: the land reforms had benefited less than 10% of the peasantry and the promised state intervention never materialised.

But Frei’s election and the mass mobilisations – strikes and land occupations – during the last half of his term of office, signified a widespread polarisation and radicalisation amongst the working class and other exploited layers. And, although the PDC was a capitalist party, its ‘radical populism’ was mistrusted by important sections of the Chilean ruling class.

Some of the movements were viciously repressed by the police and the army. US military aid to Chile was second only to Vietnam – much of it used for anti-riot squads and other means of counter-insurgency. By the time of the 1970 election ‘Revolution in Liberty’ had been exposed as a gigantic fraud and the PDC vote collapsed from 56% in 1964 to 27.8%.

The radicalisation and polarisation of Chilean society was reflected in the way the PDC began to fragment along class lines. The left wing of the PDC, disillusioned with the lack of progress in land reform, split from the party following a massacre of protesters in the southern city of Puerto Monte and launched MAPU, the Movimiento de Acción Popular Unitario (Popular Unitary Action Movement). MAPU later joined the UP coalition and a section of it ended up on the left wing. Even Tomic, the PDC candidate against Allende, had supported a resolution endorsing ‘Marxism’ at a PDC congress. This process of fragmentation in the PDC continued under the UP government, eventually leaving it as an openly right-wing party that lent its full support to the coup.

Yet despite this radicalisation, the ruling class did not expect Allende’s victory at the polls. Initially, they had no coherent strategy to confront the UP. Indeed, a serious counter-offensive by the ruling class did not begin until October 1972. However, the UP failed to use the interim period to push the revolution forward. Instead its leaders, mainly following Luis Corvalan and other PCCh leaders, sought means of appeasing the so-called ‘progressive wing’ of Chilean capitalism. The UP became a laboratory test for the ideas of the Stalinist leaders of the PCCh and was used as the model for other countries. Chile, they argued, demonstrated the ‘democratic, peaceful and parliamentary’ alternative, following the general strike by ten million workers in France 1968.

In alliance with ‘progressive’ capitalist forces, socialism, they argued, could be won by a step-by-step transformation of society – firstly conquering democratic and limited capitalist reforms – that did not go too far, too fast and provoke reaction. The working class, they claimed, was not strong enough to complete the socialist revolution and it was necessary to win the support of the middle class which could only be done by proceeding cautiously. This was the essence of the policy supported by Allende and the PCCh leaders – a re-run, in fact, of the Stalinist policy of Popular Frontism during the Spanish civil war in the 1930s. It had always resulted in defeat for the working class.

Yet even in countries where the working class is in a minority in society it can play the decisive and leading role in the revolution. This is because it is the only class, due to its collective consciousness and ability to struggle as a class, that can lay the basis to overthrow capitalism and landlordism and begin the task of building socialism. By offering a clear alternative to capitalism it is possible to win the support of sections of the middle class, poor peasants and other sections of society that are exploited by capitalism and landlordism. This was the experience of the Russian revolution in 1917 where the working class was able to take power with the support of other exploited layers in the cities and the poor peasants. It did this despite only comprising about 15% of the working population.

As Leon Trotsky explained, the working class, in the leadership of the revolution, could begin to solve the problems of land reform, the development of industry, the freeing of the nation from imperialist domination, and other historic tasks which the feeble bourgeoisie had failed to carry out. Today, in semi-developed countries where many of these tasks have still not been carried out, the capitalists and landlords are too weak and too tied to imperialism to complete them. The development of the economy, radical land reform, the redistribution of wealth and the development of health, welfare, housing, and education for the mass of the population, can only be achieved through the working class taking power and carrying through the socialist transformation of society. Such a programme, moreover, must be based on an internationalist perspective.

In Chile, in comparison with Russia in 1917, the working class had an extremely powerful position in society: 46.3% of the employed population were wage earners, with only 22% working on the land. The Chilean working class was one of the strongest in Latin America. A victorious revolution in Chile would have opened the prospect of a socialist revolution throughout Latin America.

It was not only a question of the numerical strength of the working class. Politically, the proletariat was gaining in understanding and confidence. It was pushing the revolutionary process further and further forward and was winning important sections of the middle class and peasantry to its cause. In contrast, the ‘progressive’ bourgeoisie would climb into the tanks of the Chilean armed forces and help drown the working class in blood.

Drawing up future battle lines

The ruling class used the three years from Allende’s election to unify its own forces and prepare for a showdown. The UP leaders used this time to try and appease the ruling class and its representatives at the head of the armed forces.

Although the UP had won the presidential election it lacked a majority in either the congress or the senate. At the same time, the parties opposed to the UP lacked the necessary two-thirds majority to remove the president. Allende agreed a constitutional pact with the PDC. A small section of the ruling class immediately thought of resorting to a coup to prevent Allende from taking office but the plan was abandoned. The majority of the ruling class feared that an immediate coup attempt would provoke a revolutionary explosion. So they bided their time.

Rather than agree a constitutional pact the UP leaders should have appealed to the masses for a mandate, over the heads of the congress and senate. New elections to a one-chamber assembly, as promised in the UP programme, should have been called. This should have been linked with an appeal to the workers to enact the UP programme and go further in taking the necessary steps to overthrow landlordism and capitalism. This, together with the formation of workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ councils throughout the country, would have created the basis for a new workers’ democracy that would nationalise and plan the economy democratically. The arming of the masses against the threat of reaction – already the armed thugs of the ultra-right Patria y Libertad organisation were attacking trade union headquarters and left-wing party offices – would have posed the prospect of a relatively peaceful transformation of society and left the defenders of capitalism helpless.

The revolution took important steps forward mainly due to the initiative of the masses themselves. By the end of 1971 over 2,000 land occupations had taken place. The majority of these were in the province of Cautin, where the indigenous Mapuche people took the opportunity to reclaim their land. Allende used his presidential powers to nationalise key sectors of the economy: coal, iron and nitrate, textiles, the US multi-national ITT and, in July 1971, the Chilean copper mines owned by US corporations Anaconda and Kennecott (copper accounted for 80% of Chilean exports). The nationalisation of these multi-nationals struck a blow against imperialism and won massive support in Chile and throughout Latin America. It enraged the beast in Washington that felt the blow.

These measures were accompanied by a rents freeze, wages and pensions increases, and a major education programme. Free school milk was distributed for the first time. These measures gained enormous support, not only amongst the working class but also among the increasingly radicalised middle class. The Santiago Symphony Orchestra toured the shanty towns, the ‘poblaciones’, performing free concerts for the poor!

Five months after Allende took office, mayoral elections were held in which the UP won a landslide 51% of the vote. Support for the UP was on the increase!

The fragmentation of the PDC continued. In the June 1971 by-election in Valpariso, the PDC leadership formed a pact with the Partido Nacional and won. As a result 20% of the PDC youth wing and 13% of the party membership, including eight deputies, walked out and formed the Izquierda Christiana (Christian Left). Any ‘populist’ camouflage of the PDC was now removed, and yet the UP leadership continued to try and reach agreement with its right-wing leadership.

Reaction had begun to raise its head. This was partly due to the economic consequences of sabotage by the capitalist class and imperialism. Following Allende’s election there had been a flight of foreign capital. Foreign investment was withheld and retaliatory embargoes were imposed by companies such as ITT. Shortages developed of luxury and basic commodities. Despite taking over key sectors of the economy there was no centralised plan of production and the capitalist economy still predominated.

The economic crisis, inflation and general social instability, eventually drove sections of the middle class to seek an alternative. The UP and the left, tied to the capitalist economy, appeared unable to resolve their problems. A layer turned to the right-wing parties and then the military to end the instability. This could have only been prevented if the revolution had been taken to a successful conclusion and capitalism overthrown.

Reaction strikes, workers fight

The counter-revolution took its first serious offensive in the last half of 1972. A national business strike was called in August followed by a truck owners’ stoppage in October. The UP replied by calling a demonstration to celebrate the second anniversary of Allende’s victory. It produced the largest demonstration in Chilean history with over one million participants. The chants and slogans reveal the developing consciousness. As they marched past La Moneda presidential palace the masses took up the cry: ‘Allende, Allende, el pueblo te defiende’ (‘Allende, Allende, the people will defend you’); ‘Allende, Allende, cierre el congresso (‘Allende, Allende, close down the congress’); ‘poder, popular, poder popular’ (‘popular power, popular power’).

At this stage, every reactionary offensive pushed the working class in a more revolutionary direction. The workers took every possible step to break this reactionary ‘strike’. Factories and offices were occupied and the owners and directors thrown out and the workers effectively took over the day-to-day running of the workplaces.

Moreover, the chants on the demonstration showed that the masses were trying to go further than the limits imposed by the parliamentary institutions and UP leaders. ‘Poder Popular’ had acquired a very specific meaning. Workers and other exploited layers in 1972 had begun to create their own organisations – Los Cordones Industriales (elected workers’ coordinating committees) – which had the potential to become an alternative to the institutions of the capitalist state.

The first to be established was in the industrial belt of Santiago Cerrillos where 250 factories employing 46,000 workers were concentrated. Nearby was the rural district of Maipu where 45 peasant leaders had been arrested for occupying 150 farms and demanding their nationalisation. In Cerrillos strikes were taking place and a food-processing plant was occupied by the workers. Again they demanded it be nationalised.

The police were sent against the workers provoking a joint demonstration of workers and peasants. The demonstrators denounced the continuation of ‘class justice in the so-called people’s government’ and the first Cordon Industrial was born. Delegates were elected by the workers from all the factories in the area. The Cordon arose from the struggles of the workers, but immediately adopted a programme far more advanced than their immediate struggle, and far more revolutionary than any being proposed by the left-wing political parties at the time.

Amongst other issues it declared support for Allende’s government, ‘in so far as it interprets the struggles and mobilisations of the workers’. It demanded the “expropriation of all monopoly firms with more than 14 million escudos in capital… workers’ control over all production in all industries, mines and farms through delegates’ councils… that all delegates should be recallable by the base… and that a Popular Assembly be established to replace the bourgeois parliament”.

Cordones were set up throughout the major industrial suburbs of Santiago to break the truck owners’ strike and keep production going against the employers’ sabotage and lock-outs. They were established in other key cities such as Conception, Valpariso and Puerto Monte. In Santiago the district Cordones even linked up on a city-wide basis and formed the ‘Provincial Coordinating Board of the Province of Santiago’.

In the shanty towns, JAPs (People’s Supply Committees), had already been organised. These bodies took charge of food distribution and even controlled prices, prevented hoarding, and ensured that food was fairly distributed to the needy.

Both the Cordones and the JAPs were committees of struggle, organised by the masses themselves outside the official trade union structures, which developed largely because the CUT (the main trade union confederation) was not taking the struggle forward. The CUT, which organised about 800,000 workers out of a total workforce of approximately three million, was controlled by the PCCh but both the PDC and the PSCh had an important influence. And, initially, the PCCh opposed their formation because they saw them as a rival to the CUT and even to the party itself.

The PSCh members and the MIR actively encouraged participation in the Cordones from the beginning and both the Christian Left and MAPU membership energetically participated in them. However, none of the parties had the strategy of strengthening them as the basis for an alternative to the increasingly timid policies of the government. The MIR leadership adopted a skeptical attitude about the potential these embryonic ‘soviets’ actually had.

Los cordones industriales and dual power

Yet the Cordones and the JAPs formed important elements of dual power in the revolutionary process – a situation where the working class is confronting the ruling class and moving towards taking over the running of society but where the ruling class and its state machine have still not been broken. Such a situation cannot continue indefinitely: one class or the other must emerge triumphant.

But how could this be resolved in the interests of the working class? The Cordones sprang into life when the forces of reaction moved onto the offensive but tended to lapse into a certain pacifity as the immediate threat passed. They needed to be established on a firmer basis, be linked up regionally and nationally, and to clearly present themselves as an alternative to the bourgeois parliament. Moreover, they needed to offer a programme that would form the basis for a democratic plan of production by the working class and other exploited social layers. They also needed to begin organising in the armed forces by establishing rank-and-file committees of soldiers, sailors and air-force personnel with a view to splitting the capitalist state machine along class lines.

In Concepcion, the major industrial city in the south of Chile, a city-wide ‘Popular Assembly’ was called. It called for the formation of ‘commandos Comunales’ that linked together the Cordones Industriales with the JAPs and other organisations of ‘Poder Popular’ that were being formed. This initiative was fiercely criticised by the PCCh leaders, Allende and the PSCh Central Committee and this criticism largely prevented the call from Concepcion from being widely adopted, although about a hundred Popular Assemblies were formed in Chile, twenty of them in Santiago.

How did the government respond to this mass movement and its consequences? In January 1973 the PCCh Minister of the Economy, Orlando Millas, and Minister of the Interior, General Prats (one of three generals taken into the government), introduced a bill returning 123 factories that had been taken over by the workers to their former owners! The Cordones immediately called a 30,000-strong demonstration demanding ‘power to the workers’.

The tremendous spontaneous initiative and energy of the workers had pushed the revolution forward but it had its limits. A revolutionary party with a precise programme and correct tactics was needed to direct this energy towards the completion of the revolution and the overthrow of capitalism and its state machine. But no such party existed in Chile.

Had it existed the revolution could have emerged victorious and would have opened up the prospect of a socialist revolution throughout Latin America and beyond. Even the election of the UP government with its ‘Marxist’ president and the revolutionary process that developed amongst the working class, had an electrifying effect on the masses in Latin America and Europe. It coincided with a rising struggle against the Franco dictatorship in Spain.

The spreading of the revolution to any of the Latin American countries, linked with a direct appeal to the working class in the USA, would have decisively checked the ability of US imperialism to intervene.

But this required a conscious international programme as part of the revolution. It would have also been enormously strengthened if a revolutionary workers’ international had existed. The PSCh had the stated objective of establishing a Socialist Federation of Latin America. However, the leadership used the notorious example of the Stalinist bureaucratic methods of the former Communist International in the late 1920s and 1930s as a justification for not building a new world party of revolution, which would have been a crucial instrument in achieving that goal.

The coup in 1973 preceded the revolutionary upheavals that developed in the next two years in Greece and Portugal. A victory in Chile would have opened the prospect for a transformation of the international situation in favour of the working class.

One of the immediate consequences of the lack of a revolutionary party with a clear programme and strategy was that the Cordones began to flounder. They had no clear grasp of the role they needed to play. As a result they tended to come together with local organisations of the CUT. The PCCh amended its policy and participated in the Cordones, with the objective of limiting their revolutionary role and attempting to incorporate them into the CUT apparatus.

Allende’s election had resulted in an explosion in the membership of all the parties on the left. Tens of thousands had joined the ranks of the PSCh, PCCh and the MIR. Some of the most left-wing were to be found in the PSCh and amongst the ranks of the MIR. The PSCh had declared itself a Marxist party from its foundation in 1933 and was born in part in a struggle against the Stalinist policies and bureaucratic methods of the PCCh and the Communist International. The party congress in 1967 took a sharp turn to the left and proclaimed: “The Socialist Party, as a Marxist-Leninist organisation, declares the taking of power as the strategical 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… Only by destroying the bureaucratic and military apparatus of the bourgeois state can the socialist revolution be consolidated”.

These bold declarations reflected the revolutionary aspirations of the party rank and file and its supporters, who were looking to embrace a revolutionary Marxist programme. However, words are not sufficient. A clear programme and revolutionary deeds are also necessary to transform aspirations into reality. The leaders of the left wing of the PSCh verbally expressed the revolutionary sentiments of the rank and file but did not match their revolutionary-sounding words in action and programme. They had all of the features of centrism, using revolutionary and Marxist terminology but proposing only the vaguest programme. In deeds they acted little differently from the reformists at decisive moments.

The fundamental weaknesses of the PSCh left were shown even before Allende was elected in 1970. Allende was on the centre-right of the PSCh. As the party’s presidential candidate he was selected by the central committee by 12 votes to 13 abstentions! The denunciation of the appeal from the Popular Assembly in Concepcion to form ‘commandos zonales’ by the PSCh central committee was another clear indication that the centrist leaders of the party, such as Altimirano, despite their good intentions, acted as de facto policemen for Allende and the PCCh, who were trying to apply the brakes to the revolutionary process.

Allende fails to arm the workers

Rumours of a coup had circulated throughout the period of the UP. But, although some workers and youth did obtain arms, there was no serious planning and preparation for the building an armed workers’ militia. This was in spite of the fact that the PSCh had an armed wing. A militia should have been organised through the Cordones. Many of those who obtained arms lost them again as the government allowed searches and raids of factories and homes to be undertaken by the army and police prior to the coup. One of the largest supplies of arms was kept in Allende’s house and was not distributed to the workers.

The leaders failed to organise cells and committees of revolutionary soldiers, sailors and air-force personnel, although many in the rank and file of the armed forces openly supported the revolutionary movement. The PSCh and MIR did begin a campaign aimed at the rank and file of the armed forces in the months leading up to the coup but it was too little, too late.

The MIR grouped around it some of the most revolutionary youth in Chile at the time. However, influenced by some of Che Guevara’s ideas, it based itself on the idea of urban guerrillaism – its base, apart from the revolutionary students, was mainly amongst the urban poor rather than the working class. Its skeptical attitude towards the Cordones reflected its lack of confidence and understanding about the role of the workers and the mass movement in the revolutionary process. This was reflected in the decision of the party to go underground after a second aborted coup attempt on 29 June 1973. While it is necessary under these conditions for a revolutionary party to take all necessary steps to protect its members and leaders, the decision to go underground at this stage was taken as part of the MIR’s preparations to launch an urban guerrilla struggle after a coup.

Allende, urged on by the PCCh, put his faith in the constitutional loyalty of the army, navy and air-force. During 1972 and 1973 he even brought three of them into the cabinet including the ‘constitutionalist’ general, Augusto Pinochet. Through such steps he wrongly thought it was possible to placate the capitalist state machine. With preparations for a coup being openly discussed, the PCCh launched a petition demanding, ‘No to a civil war’!

The capitalist class was exploring various options to overthrow the government. Some looked towards what was called the ‘golpe blanco’ (white coup). Congressional elections were due in March 1973 and they hoped to win the necessary majority to either imprison Allende or call a plebiscite to remove him. The elections took place against the background of mounting economic chaos and with the whole of the state, media and judiciary openly campaigning for the right-wing parties. The right wing needed 67% of the vote and two-thirds of the seats. Despite all its efforts it emerged with 54% and the UP 43.4% – higher than Allende achieved in the 1970 presidential election.

The bourgeoisie now overwhelmingly concluded that they had no choice but to prepare for a full military coup. Its imminence was revealed in the second aborted coup attempt, in June 1973. This was put down by sections of the army because it was judged still to be premature. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets in support of the UP. Following the call from the CUT, factories and offices were again occupied by workers throughout the country. This time the slogans were a plea for arms to defend the government. ‘Allende, Allende, el pueblo ti defiende’ still echoed in the streets around La Moneda. Only now they added, ‘ El pueblo armardo jamas sera aplastado’ (‘The armed people will never be defeated’).

The military waited a few months before making its final and decisive move. The generals wanted to ensure that there was no danger of the armed forces splitting. They therefore used the period after June to carry out a systematic purge of the known supporters of the revolution.

In Valpariso the plotters were preparing to launch the coup using the navy as a base. The plan was uncovered by rank-and-file sailors who even prepared a detailed plan to put the fleet to sea in order disrupt the plans. Allende sanctioned the reprisals against them in order not to provoke the military high command! More than a hundred were imprisoned for subversive activity and tortured. In Concepcion an entire NCO school was wiped out because of its suspected sympathies with the MIR.

On 11 September 1973 the military struck with ruthless efficiency. Allende was able to make a final broadcast before he died heroically in the presidential palace. Many workers, responding to an appeal from the PSCh leaders, were slaughtered as they heroically defended factories from military assault.

Fighting in Santiago lasted for about a week as thousands were taken to the National Stadium and then to other concentration camps. Amongst them was the popular folk singer, Victor Jara, who continued to lead resistance singing inside the stadium. He was silenced after his fingers and then his back were broken prior to execution.

The iron heel of the Junta then proceeded to try and break the back of the Chilean masses, who are still today recovering from this defeat. The defeat of the Chilean workers in 1973 provoked mass protests and strike action by workers around the world. Dockers throughout Europe and Australia refused to handle Chilean goods while British seafarers boycotted Chilean ports.

The legacy of the defeat is still present today. But the experience will not have been in vain if revolutionaries learn from the mistakes of the workers’ leaders between 1970 and 1973. The same tasks will again be posed for the Chilean workers and workers internationally. The lessons must be learnt.