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ISR Issue 6, Winter 1999

Chile: The State and Revolution


ON THE morning of September 11, 1998—the 25th anniversary of the military coup that brought Gen. Augusto Pinochet to power—Chileans awakened to a scene that vividly recalled the terrible events of 25 years ago. The center of Santiago was again under military occupation. Clouds of tear gas polluted the air for blocks around downtown as police rioted against crowds of people who dared to commemorate the victims of the coup.

Demonstrators hoped to march past the La Moneda presidential palace on the side of the building with the door through which President Allende’s bullet-ridden body was removed after Pinochet’s soldiers murdered him during the coup. But the leaders of Chile’s present-day civilian government prohibited the protest, calling it a plot by “extremist and subversive” groups—phrases all too closely associated with the Pinochet dictatorship.1 The government unleashed police terror instead. At least two demonstrators were killed and 180 people arrested. A revolutionary socialist living in Santiago reported that “the vast majority of the violence was provoked by the police, who did not hesitate to spray water, shoot tear gas and throw objects at a mainly peaceful crowd which included children and the elderly.”2

These events demonstrate the fact that for Chileans, the coup remains a live issue to this very day. Now the arrest of former Chilean Dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet has touched a raw nerve, not only in Chile, but around the world. Britain arrested Pinochet last October at the request of a Spanish judge who sought Pinochet’s extradition on charges of murder, torture and genocide during his 17-year rule in Chile. In the wave of demonstrations and diplomatic activity that followed, both in Chile and elsewhere, defenders of Pinochet demanded his immediate release and opponents demanded to “lock him up and throw away the key.”

Pinochet led a bloody military coup against the democratically elected socialist government of President Salvador Allende. The coup began in the early morning hours of September 11, 1973. Tanks filled the streets of the major cities, and bombs rained down on La Moneda palace in Santiago, killing Allende.

The coup was conducted with extraordinary savagery. Thousands were raped, subjected to inhuman torture, starved, abused, murdered. In the following 12 months 30,000 people were killed. They were the best and Most courageous leaders of their class, systematically picked off with sophisticated foreign intelligence help. And they were not just killed—they were torn apart, to warn and terrify the next generation. The rest were dealt with arbitrarily, to terrorize the population and give graphic notice that the new regime would give no quarter. That was the significance of the maimed bodies that floated every morning along Santiago’s River Mapocho.3

Thousands of Chilean leftists, including some in foreign exile, were later hunted down and murdered by Pinochet’s secret police during the 1970s and 1980s. U.S. Officials have stayed strangely quiet about Pinochet’s arrest, and for good reason—the Nixon government was an active accomplice to the coup and its bloody aftermath.

All haters of injustice around the world can only hope that Pinochet is prosecuted and dies in prison, and that the atrocities he—and his U.S. backers—committed, are fully exposed for all to see. Equally important, however, are the lessons to be learned from the defeat. That is the subject of this article.

A number of explanations have been put forward for the violent defeat of the via chilena (Chilean road), or Chile’s experiment with the “parliamentary road to socialism.” But most agree with the line issued by the Chilean Communist Party in the wake of the coup—that Chile’s workers “went too far” and provoked the bosses, the military and the CIA into the coup. It continues to be the foundation of left politics in Chile todaythat peaceful reform, rather than revolutionary change, is the only possible option for the working-class movement.

Yet everything that happened in 1973 points to the opposite conclusion. “The central question in Chile was the state and revolution. The Popular Unity period witnessed the acting out of an age-old drama: the idea that the existing state machine can be used, can be somehow molded into the service of the working class.”4

Workers did indeed go “too far” in Chile—too far, that is, for the Chilean ruling class. The class struggle in Chile over the course of 1972-73 reached the point of threatening the very existence of capitalist society. Chile’s bosses recognized the situation and took steps toward overthrowing the Allende government because it was unable to successfully contain the workers’ movement. When faced with a growing military threat, however, Allende and other leaders of Popular Unity continued to believe in the possibility of reforming the state. The reformists and their illusions about the nature of the capitalist state are to be blamed for the defeat of Chile’s workers in 1973. The outcome, as we shall see, could have been different.

A Popular Front with a Difference

Allende came to power in November 1970 as the candidate of a six-party electoral coalition known as Unidad Popular (UP), or Popular Unity. The leading organizations within Popular Unity were the Socialist Party and the Communist Party. Each defined itself as a Marxist organization and justly claimed a tradition of political leadership within Chile’s workers’ movement. Another party was the smaller United Popular Action Movement (MAPU), the dissident left wing of the Christian Democrats (CD), who had split from the CD in 1969 precisely in order to seek an electoral alliance with the Marxist left. The Radical Party formed the largest non-Marxist party in Popular Unity and represented elements of the middleclass center. Two smaller non-Marxist groups, the populist Independent Popular Action Party (API) and the Social Democrats (PSD), completed the roster of main organizations within Popular Unity.

Among the revolutionary left, doubts existed that the united left would ever win power through elections. This was the view primarily of a group of Marxist students who split from the Socialist Party in 1963 and founded the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR) in 1965. These young revolutionaries had been profoundly influenced by the 1959 Cuban Revolution and, subsequently, by the revolutionary romanticism of Che Guevara. MIR’s positions often found sympathizers within the remaining left wing of the Socialist Party, including its 11 pessimism ... with regard to the electoral road.”5 MIR remained officially outside Popular Unity but eventually played an important role in the events of 1972-73.

Popular Unity itself thus comprised a heterogeneous centerleft coalition committed to pursuing the electoral road to socialism in Chile. There had been a long-standing tradition within a large section of the Socialist Party that rejected the idea that socialism could be achieved in Chile by any other but revolutionary means—a view reflected in party pronouncements. But the left wing of the party, by refusing to part ways with Allende’s commitment to the electoral road, as we shall see, gave a very left covering for the party’s right wing.

Popular Unity’s electoral program promised a number of important economic measures, which included nationalization of Chile’s American-owned copper mines, private banks and insurance companies. Establishment of a “social property sector” would secure control over both “strategic industrial monopolies” and those service-sector enterprises having “a strong influence on the nation’s social and economic development.”6

Popular Unity’s program reflected its political strategy: an alliance of the middle and lower classes, blueand white-collar workers, intellectuals and peasants. It contained something for almost everybody and particular assurances to the non-Marxist middle class that a Popular Unity victory would hurt only “monopolists” and “imperialists.”7

The content of Allende’s economic policy, far from being socialist, was “an orthodox Keynesian plan for reactivating the economy. It contained no challenge to the dominance of private capital; on the contrary, it gave the industrial bourgeoisie a range of guarantees and provided land- owners with generous compensation.”8 Allende completed the previous Christian Democratic government of Edwardo Frei’s interrupted program of land reform, but he did so exactly as the 1967 Agrarian Reform Act had been drafted—with extensive compensation to landowners that included their retaining possession of the most fertile 500 acres and the best of the farm machinery. Popular Unity aimed to take only 150 of 3500 firms into the “social property sector,” moreover, which meant leaving “outside the public sector between 50 and 60 percent of industrial production and the vast majority of the industrial workforce.”9 Although it fully nationalized U.S.-owned copper mines without compensation and thus took control of Chile’s major export industry, Allende’s government enacted this measure with the unanimous support of the Christian Democrats who controlled Congress.

In the political realm as well, Allende consciously sought to avoid a direct confrontation with the power of Chile’s bosses. When the bourgeoisie demanded a “Statute of Guarantees” as a condition of allowing Allende to assume power, he willingly signed a document that committed Popular Unity to preserving the main institutions of the capitalist state.10 The statute react, in part:

1.The continuation of the existing political system together with constitutional guarantees of individual freedom.
2.The existing legal system should remain.
3.The armed forces and police should continue to guarantee democracy.11

In short, Allende agreed not to touch any of the main institutions of state power. This “Statute of Guarantees” was never presented to rank-and-file members of Popular Unity for debate or ratification. Allende’s decision to sign the document no doubt reflected his belief that the capitalist state is a neutral entity and, with socialists in power, the state apparatus can be turned to workers’ advantage. Indeed, “the bourgeois State was not seen as a totality whose ultimate justification was the defense of bourgeois interests, but as a conglomeration of bits and pieces each of which could, if captured by the Left, either be used ‘against capitalist interests directly, or at the very least neutralized.”12 Later events, of course, would demonstrate just how fatally wrong this reformist view of the capitalist state actually was.

The Rise of Working-Class Militancy

The driving force behind Allende’s election was rising workingclass and peasant militancy, a militancy that both propelled Allende to power and also threatened his ability to placate the bourgeoisie. Frei’s Christian Democratic government that ruled from 1964-1970 hoped through modest land and social reform to head off working-class and peasant militancy. It had the opposite effect. In response to the only minimal implementation of Frei’s Agrarian Reform Act, thousands of peasants simply seized the land and occupied it. Other peasants flocked to the cities in search of jobs, where they discovered that Frei’s promise of industrial growth had proven just as empty as his promise of land reform. These peasants joined earlier waves of “rural migrants [who] had established themselves in the working-class areas, building squatter towns on vacant plots; they had then begun to organize and fight for the right to housing land and basic facilities.”13 Farm and urban land occupations jumped from 24 in 1968 to 194 in 1969.

Even more threatening to Chile’s rich, the urban working class stepped up the struggle in response to a drastic decline in real wages. The Chilean trade union federation, the Central Unica de Trabajadores (CUT), called a national strike in 1967 to protest Frei’s demand for a no-strike clause in every new labor contract. The success of the national strike raised the confidence of workers to fight. The number of strikes jumped from an already impressive 1,939 strikes involving 230,725 workers in 1969, to an amazing 5,295 strikes involving 316,280 workers in 1970.14 The character of the struggle also changed. Workers began occupying the factories during industrial disputes. Factory occupations rose from five in 1968 to 24 in 1969; they then jumped to 133 in 1970, and leaped in 1971 to 339.15

Allende’s election in this political climate inevitably meant that workers would regard the Popular Unity government as their own. Allende himself excited workers to believe that Chile could achieve socialism by using the existing capitalist state to bring about change. He claimed in an interview given on January 6, 1971, that “the situation in Chile is such that the Constitution can be changed within the Constitution, by means of plebiscites. “16 In a speech delivered five months later he summarized the essence of Popular Unity’s strategy: “The flexibility of our institutional system allows us to hope that [the state] will not be a rigid barrier of contention. And just as in the case of our judicial system, it will adapt to new needs in order to generate, through constitutional means, a new system of institutions required by the superceding of capitalism.”17 Allende went on in the same speech to list “the democratic resolve of our Armed Forces and Police” among the forces which would defend the Constitution and the legitimacy of the parliamentary road to socialism in Chile.18 The claim that the army would “respect” the Constitution (i.e. Allende’s presidency) was repeated over and over again by UP and CP leaders right up to the fatal coup on September 11, 1973.

The international news media described Allende in November 1970 as “the world’s first democratically elected Marxist president.” In keeping with his commitment to constitutionalism, however, Allende promised to implement only those reforms which were permitted under already existing legislation. He stated further that he would enact only those new measures which could win approval from the Chilean Congress, which itself was dominated by the right.19

The Rising Tilde and The Response of the Right

Chilean workers and peasants were both inspired and emboldened by Allende’s electoral victory. Peasant organizations not only maintained a high level of mobilization during the first months of the new government but also began to intensify the pace of land seizures, which increased to 368 in 1970 and to 658 in 1971. In May, however, Allende ordered a halt to land occupations and told the peasants to wait for the legal process to redistribute land. He also publicly criticized the leadership of MIR, which enjoyed influence over the peasant and shantytown organizations, instructing them, too, to restrict their activities within the law.

Few open confrontations occurred between workers and the new government during the first half of 1971. This was primarily because the government raised the wages of manual workers by 38 percent and those of white-collar workers by 120 percenti Unemployment was also reduced to less than 10 percent, and the economy began to grow again at a rate of 8 percent per year. The conflicts that did break out, however, clearly revealed the fierce contradiction between the aspirations of many workers and “their” government’s vision of how change would occur. Allende, for example, furiously denounced as “premature” the de

ill in April mand by striking workers at the Yarur Cotton M 1971 that he nationalize the mill. But, as in many cases where workers seized factories and demanded nationalization, Allende was often forced to recognize a fait accompli.20

During the first six months of his administration, Allende had nationalized 90 firms and 1,400 farms. Resistance on the part of industrialists and landowners now picked up, as it became increasingly clear that Allende’s electoral victory had released a tide of working-class and peasant factory and land seizures, whatever he might do to limit them. The multinationals that formerly owned Chile’s copper mines attempted to block copper exports. Landowners looked to the courts, where they could count on a sympathetic hearing, for relief from expropriations. Using their parliamentary majority to full advantage, the Christian Democrats began to throw legal obstacles in the way of reform.21 To make matters worse, the economic situation deteriorated in the latter part of 1971. Popular Unity’s initially successful policy of reactivating the economy through massive wage hikes and increased production had soon resulted in serious inflation and consumer shortages.

Given this kind of political and economic environment, Popular Unity “could not advance any further ... unless it was prepared to attack the industrial bourgeoisie. . . “22 AIlende balked at this step because it “would have taken him beyond the guarantees he had given and represented a challenge to existing property relations and the very class nature of the society.”23 Instead he urged wage restraint upon workers and scaled back the the number of nationalizations.

Meanwhile, the Chilean bourgeoisie quit biding its time and organized a major protest to coincide with the month-long visit of Fidel Castro at the end of 1971. In the infamous .March of the Empty Pots” in December, bourgeois and middle-class women, many of whom dragged their maids along to carry and bang on kitchen pots and pans, filled the streets.

But behind the protests over consumer shortages lay another and more far-reaching purpose: to mobilize the middle classes, to warn the bourgeoisie on an international scale of the battles to come, and to express bourgeois skepticism as to the Ups ability to contain the working class.

For it was true that, despite UP’s pleas and its thinly veiled attacks on strikers and squatters, Allende had not been able to control the working-class movement entirely. Between January and December 1971, the number of strikes reached 1,758, and there had been 1,278 land invasions.24

U.S. Imperialism Strikes Back

The international bourgeoisie had already gotten the message. International capital, led by the U.S., imposed an informal economic blockade on Chile beginning virtually the day after Allende’s election. The World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank cut off finances, and the U.S. government stopped its program of loans.

U.S. multinationals such as International Telephone and Telegraph company (ITT) and Kennecott Copper Corporation pursued more direct forms of aggression designed to subvert the Allende government. The astonishing “ITT Memos,” which are a record of internal communications between ITT managers at the time, show that ITT actively sought “to strangle the Chilean economy, sow panic, and foment social disorder in order to encourage and create the opportunity for the armed forces to step in and replace Popular Unity.”25

Many of the officers serving in the armed forces, it must be remembered, had received training in the U.S. But the CIA’s intervention went much further than this. A former CIA Director later informed Congress that the CIA had infused $11 million into Chilean politics between 1962 and 1970 in an effort to prevent Allende from being elected. When Allende was elected despite these efforts, Henry Kissinger, who was Secretary of State under President Richard Nixon, authorized the expenditure of “8 million dollars, between 1970 and 1973, to ‘destabilize’ the economy, including money for right-wing strikes, to bring down the Allende Government.”26

Allende’s victory had “sent Nixon into a rage.”27 On September 15, President Nixon ordered CIA Director Richard Helms to undertake major efforts to stop Allende’s ascension to power and to pro mote a coup in Chile. Nixon approved $ 10 million and more if needed for the covert activity, and he specified that the CIA’s “best men” were to be assigned to the mission.28

Three weeks after Pinochet’s successful military coup, a U.S. Department of Defense memorandum dated October 1, 1973, referred to September I I as “our D-Day” and stated that “Chile’s coup de etat [sic] was dose to perfect.”29 The same memo shamelessly bragged that “less than eight hours after the initiation of the coup, Allende was dead and a three-year experiment in Marxism joined him in the grave. There are few mourners for Allende or Marxism to be seen in Chile today.” And no wonder! A State Department memorandum sent November 16 recorded that the number of summary executions during the 19 days following the coup were three times higher than the publicly acknowledged number.30

In the years following the coup, the Chilean Communist Party has been the strongest advocate of the view that the U.S. and the CIA were primarily to blame for the destruction of the via chilena. The argument is meant to show that, without U.S. imperialism, Chile’s peaceful, constitutional road to socialism could have succeeded. Certainly there is unequivocal evidence of the U.S. government’s sickening role in destabilizing the Popular Unity government and aiding Pinochet in the September I I coup. But in these efforts the U.S. was aiding and abbetting an effort spearheaded and sustained by Chile’s own ruling class alarmed by the growing power of the working class.

“Popular Power” and the Cordones

Near the end of 1971, the British newspaper Socialist Worker analyzed the situation in Chile as one in which events had reached a critical juncture:

Allende can no longer hope to satisfy the owners of industry and the working class. He will have to choose to side with one or the other. But one side is armed, the other not. And Allende shows no inclination at all to break his pledge to the middle class of a year ago not to “interfere” with the state machine. Instead he will probably use his influence, and that of the bureaucrats within Chiles working-class-based parties and trade unions, to persuade workers to put up with harsh conditions and an erosion of last year’s reforms.

Such a course will tend to create confusion and a lack of direction among many workers. But it is not likely to lead to any great loss in the the spontaneous militancy in the factories and mines. Because of that it will not satisfy those who hold real power in Chile. In the past we have seen a number of examples of regimes in some ways similar to Allende’s.

After a period their mass of support became demoralized and the government themselves were easily overthrown by right-wing military coups.31

The political confusion of the moment was reflected in the ambiguous meaning of one of the most important slogans developed during the struggles: poder popular, or, “popular power.”32 To many workers the slogan meant that the immediate goal was to create socialism—right here, right now. To the leaders of Popular Unity and the trade union officials, the slogan called on workers to support “their” government.

That a significant distance had begun to open between the Allende government and the workers and peasants in whose interests it purported to act was demonstrated by events in the summer of 1972. At Melipilla in the farming area of Maipú, the local judge had repeatedly blocked land expropriations that were legal under the new reform bill. A protest demonstration resulted in the arrest of 44 leading members of the agricultural workers’ association. The arrests were themselves protested with a mass march into downtown Santiago, where demonstrators demanded from the Communist Minister of the Interior the release of the 44 prisoners as well as the firing of the judge. But the Allende government did nothing.33

After learning about the struggle at Melipilla, workers from the neighboring industrial area of Cerrillos voted to support the agricultural workers. Cerrillos is a suburb of Santiago and at the time contained the largest concentration of industries in Chile: 46,000 workers in 250 factories.34 Industrial workers had joined with the agricultural workers during the mass march demanding an end to bourgeois class justice in Melipilla. Together they now formed the Cordón Cerrillos-Maiptú. The cordones “were rank-and-file organizations of workers in industrial districts, bringing together workers from all the factories in that district to organize production.”35 The cordón—literally the “industrial belt”—was “the Chilean example of those organs of workers’ power that arise in every revolutionary crisis” and “represented the workers’ response to the objective necessity for self organization.”36 In July the Cordón Cerrillos-Maipú announced its own political program—one that stood out as “far in advance of anything proposed by the Socialists and far more concrete than anything suggested by the MIR. “37 The program read, in part:

1. Support President Allende’s government in so far as it interprets the struggles and mobilizations of the workers.

2. Expropriate all monopoly firms and those with more than 14 million escudos capital, as well as all industries which are in any way strategic, all those which belong to foreign capital, and all those which boycott production or do not fulfill their commitments to their workers.

3. Workers’ control over production in all industries, farms, mines and so on, through delegates’ councils, delegates being recallable by the base...

4. Set up the Popular Assembly to replace the bourgeois parliament.38

The Cordón’s program was moving in a clear revolutionary direction, but it still put its faith in Allende, pushing for its demands to be carried out by the Popular Unity government. The Communist Party and the right wing of the Socialist Party immediately rejected the cordones. They ordered their members to boycott them, insisting that all workers’ activity should be coordinated through the CUT. The first Cordón Cerrillos-Maipú was thus short-lived. It would nevertheless reappear, along with new ones like it, in the transportation owners’ strike of October 1972 and the crucial developments of May/June 1973.

Consolidate or Advance?

Revolutions always reach a point at which, if the revolutionary process does not go forward, it inevitably falls back and faces defeat. Events such as those at Melipilla and Cerrillos ignited precisely this debate within Popular Unity: “?consolidar o avanzar?” (“consolidate or advance?”). At a June 1972 conference in Lo Curro, the right wing of Popular Unity argued that further reforms should await a wider electoral mandate. This would mean in practice limiting the via chilena to only what the middle-class sectors, both inside and outside of Popular Unity, would accept. The left wing of Popular Unity argued instead for speeding up the reform process, including the pace of nationalization, and for attributing more importance to the actual struggles on the ground. At no point during the debate, however, did anyone argue “that any organization should act outside UP. Always the discussion was about what UP should do from its position within the state.”39

A Popular Assembly held in July 1972 at Concepción brought together some 3,000 delegates from trade unions, grassroots movements and student organizations to discuss the same urgent question of whether to consolidate or to advance reform. Representatives of the left political parties attended as well, with the exception of the Communist Party. The Chilean CP described the Concepción Assembly as a “maneuver by reaction and imperialism, using elements of the ultra-left as a cover.”40 Allende, too, seconded this view when he remarked in a speech delivered on July 31 that “there is no doubt in my mind that [the Concepción Assembly] is a process that serves the interests of the enemies of the revolutionary cause.”41

What had emerged with the Cerrillos-Maipú Cordón, of course, was the potential for creating a situation of “dual power,” one in which the cordones could develop into the basis of a popular assembly and popular militia in a new workers’ state by supplanting the congress and armed forces of the old bosses’ state. In the same July 31 speech, therefore, Allende left no doubts about his allegiance to bourgeois democracy and his opposition to the development of the cordones.

Allende claimed that the development of these organs dual power in Chile would be an act of “crass irresponsibility’—since the government already represented the interests of the working class as a whole. “Sensible” revolutionaries, he maintained, cannot “ignore the institutional system which governs our society and which forms part of the government of Popular Unity.”42

Throughout this entire period, Allende and the leaders of Popular Unity sought instead to convince workers of the allegiance of Chile’s armed forces to the Constitution. Early in 1971 the general secretary of the Communist Party, Luis Corvalán, insisted that the Chilean “army is not invulnerable to the new winds blowing in Latin America and penetrating everywhere. It is not a body alien to the nation, in the service of antinational interests. It must be won to the cause of progress in Chile and not pushed to the other side of the barricades.”43 And in September 1972, a year almost to the day before the successful military coup, Allende himself denounced the idea of forming workers’ militias: “There will be no armed forces here other than those stipulated by the constitution, that is to say, the Army, the Navy and the Air Force. I shall eliminate any others if they appear.’44 Allende’s willingness to rely on the army and his refusal to support the cordones meant that he had become a disarmer of workers in the class struggle at the very time workers were beginning to face the full force of the bosses’ aggression.

The Transportation Bosses’ Strike

The coup of September 11, 1973, represented the final act in a drama whose end was largely determined by the unwillingness of Popular Unity to abandon the parliamentary road in favor of the revolutionary road to socialism at three key junctures throughout the last year of Allende’s government. The failure of other groups—notably MIR and the left wing of the Socialist Party—to withdraw their support from Popular Unity and to establish a revolutionary parry with the conscious aim of taking state power then finally sealed the fate of the via chilena.

Through the transportation owners’ strike that began on October 11, 1972, the Chilean bourgeoisie attempted to use its continued control of distribution to put Allende on the defensive. Workers in many areas had won significant control over production, but they had generally been unable to dominate the means of distribution. The impact of the strike might have been immediate and devastating, since the lack of road transportation could have halted all supplies. Moreover, shopkeepers closed their shops in support of the transportation bosses; doctors, lawyers, dentists and other professionals added to the atmosphere of panic by also joining the strike.45

But masses of workers took things into their own hands, ensuring that supplies continued to circulate by taking to the streets and commandeering trucks and vans. They set up factory committees to organize distribution without the bosses and to protect production against sabotage. Huge marches and demonstrations were organized with workers shouting “crear, crear, poder popular” (“build, build people’s power”). In a word, the cordones reemerged and successfully turned the tide against the bosses. As a worker at a packaging plant in Santiago explained, “The bosses aren’t going to tell us what to do. We opened the stores, took out the raw materials and just kept on producing—production didn’t stop here for a single moment.”46

The experience of fighting back against the transportation bosses led to a dynamic increase in the level of class consciousness among workers. One young woman worker’s criticism of Allende’s reformism reflected the mood of many workers: “I think comrade Allende has been very soft; he says it’s because he wants to avoid violence, but I think we should respond with more force, scare them to death. They’re trying to take away what we won.”47

These lessons, and the opportunity to build real workers’ power, were once again lost on Allende. While workers, through their own mass mobilization, had defeated the truck owners’ strike, Allende immediately sought to appease the bourgeoisie by promising to return some of the factories seized by workers, and he called on the army to “restore order.” He then went on to appoint three generals to cabinet posts in an attempt to placate the Christian Democrats. Finally, Allende

launched a campaign for “social peace” together with the commander in chief of the army, who was given control over internal security. What “social peace” meant was soon clear to some workers at least. Where they had occupied factories, for instance in the town of Arica in Northern Chile, they were told to allow the old bosses to take over again. As the bosses did so they sacked the militant workers. This was what Allende and the Communist Party meant by a “dialogue” with the middle class.48

It is important to underscore here that the government called upon the military not to defeat the bosses’ strike but rather to impose the bosses’ peace. Faced with a clash between two forms of power—the power of the bosses, on the one hand, and the power of the workers and their cordones, on the other—Allende and his government sided with Chile’s bosses.

The El Teniente Copper Miners’ Strike

The strike at the El Teniente copper mine represented the second turning point and a major setback for the working-class movement. The strike lasted 74 days during the months of April, May and June 1973. The miners struck against the Allende regime because it refused to give them the wage increases promised in their contract. Instead, Allende asked the miners to accept a sacrifice “for the general good;” when they refused, his government labeled them “fascists” and “traitors.”49 Every left organization in Chile accepted the government’s slander that the walkout was part of a right-wing conspiracy.

Yet the miners’ strike took place in a context of galloping inflation and a decline in real wages by as much as 50 percent. The miners in fact were standing up against a two-year erosion of workers’ living standards. Although the wages of the copper miners were certainly higher than the national average, this was not because they formed a “labor aristocracy” bought off by the bosses, as Popular Unity, and especially the Communist Party, maintained. “The simple truth is that the copper miner exhausts his labor power in 15 to 20 years of work in the copper mines; as a group, these miners had the lowest life expectancy [40 to 50 years] and, further, an average of 300 fatal accidents every year.”50 Nor does the criticism that they were dupes of the bourgeoisie withstand scrutiny. The right wing did move in to take advantage of the strike, but only “30 days after the beginning of the strike, once it was clear that the UP government was carefully safeguarding its interests. (Then] the bourgeoisie began to make demagogic use of the conflict.”51

Historically, the copper miners were the most militant workers in Chile until the 1970s. The result of Popular Unity’s failure to support them was that the traditionally most classconscious section of the Chilean working class—one which could have been a powerful ally of the left—became completely alienated from the workers’ movement as a whole. Organizations to the left of Allende displayed no better an attitude toward the miners: “The MIR criticized 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.”52

Souper’s Dress Rehearsal

The final turning point came on June 29, 1973, when Colonel Robert Souper declared a coup and rolled his tanks onto the streets of Santiago. Leading officers within the armed forces viewed Souper as acting prematurely and withheld their support. But none of the opposition parties, including the Christian Democrats, decried the coup attempt. It was a clear signal of a more ominous military threat.

The working class once again sprang into action to thwart the coup attempt.

The workers’ reaction was once again magnificent. Hundreds of factories and offices were occupied around Santiago. On 30 June a giant demonstration surged onto the streets. In the provincial cities, hitherto slower to mobilize than the capital, cordones and communal commands suddenly mushroomed. Cordón Cerrillos began taking decisions as a workers’ council... Suddenly everything was possible. The enemy was vacillating, confused.53

In the days that followed, left parties from the MIR to the Socialists issued calls for workers to prepare for an armed defense of the government. At the same time, they continued to declare their loyalty to the Popular Unity leadership.

The need for revolutionaries to break from Popular Unity and argue an independent line—for unifying and centralizing the Cordones, arming the working class and repudiating Allende’s compromises with the bourgeiosie—could not by now have been clearer. Allende did not deserve workers’ loyalty or trust. In early 1971 he had been asked point-blank how he would 11 cope with sedition” from the right and with a “head-on decisive confrontation, a violent end to the current state of coexistence. A military uprising for example...” Allende had responded: “If they start it, it will happen, but, in any case, we shall wait for them to start it. We are vigilant... We shall meet reactionary violence with revolutionary violence, because we know that they are going to break rules .”54 But, instead of acting on these tough words in the wake of Souper’s coup, Allende once again turned to the army.

Throughout July and August Allende allowed the army to use a 1972 arms-control law (a law that he had signed) to carry out preemptive strikes against the popular organizations, cordones and trade unions. Looking to seize weapons that workers had begun to make and stockpile in the weeks following the coup attempt in June, the army also designed their raids to terrorize the population and root out revolutionaries. In August Allende again invited the military into his government. One of the officials who took a position this time was none other than General Augusto Pinochet. In all of this Allende received the constant backing and encouragement of Chile’s Communist Party. indeed, General Secretary Corvalán delivered a speech barely 10 days after Souper’s coup in which he astonishingly declared: “We continue to support the absolutely professional character of the armed institutions. Their enemies are not among the ranks of the people but in the reactionary camp.”55

Through their actions in July and August, Allende and the Communist Party effectively prepared Chile’s workers not for victory but for slaughter. No left organization, however, took up the challenge of breaking politically with Popular Unity. With workers mobilized in response to Souper’s coup, it would have been possible to throw the military and the right on the defensive, arm the working class and sweep aside a government that had proven time and time again that it was committed to making dangerous compromises. Yet a party willing to lay out a clear revolutionary strategy did not appear. Instead, the tide turned the other way.

There were revolutionary militants who could have offered an alternative leadership to workers in opposition to the policies of Allende and the Communist Party. But many were stranded inside the Socialist Party, whose would-be “leftist” leadership continued to tolerate Allende as a member and put forward the notion that forms of popular power could coexist with the existing setup. The most important independent revolutionary group was the MIR, and in the course of this year it attracted ... many of the worker militants inside the Socialist Party.... But it was not until 1972 that it paid real attention to activity among the industrial workers who held the key to Chile’s future, and even then it seems to have been more an organization for workers, rather than an organization of workers.56

The two largest cordones, Cordón Cerrillos and Cordón Vicuna Mackenna, had refused instructions from the official trade union confederation (CUT) to hand back the factories they had seized at the end of June. A July 19 protest by workers at Cordón Vicuna Mackenna resulted in the death of a MIR member. It was around this incident that “the debate over the role of the cordones surfaced in public. The right demanded action against them. The CUT said that such bodies should function under its authority. The left wavered. “57 At this critical moment, MIR proved incapable of recognizing the revolutionary significance of the cordones or of understanding that socialist revolution was possible only on the basis of the self-activity of Chile’s working class. Instead, they criticized the cordones as “Parallel institutions” that should be absorbed into the CUT. The cost of MlR’s confusion was catastrophic. In the crucial days of July, MIR’s political strategy became increasingly rhetorical. It returned to a largely clandestine existence from July until the September 11 coup.

By early September, the U.S. military was conducting joint maneuvers with the Chilean armed forces. The CIA remained under standing orders to destroy the Popular Unity government. In just a few days U.S. spies would work shoulder to shoulder with Chile’s military butchers to destroy all resistance to Pinochet’s coup. Yet none of this could have overcome the mass mobilization of Chile’s workers—if there had been a revolutionary party that was clear about the need for the working class to smash the old state and to take power themselves. Instead, in the face of Allende’s efforts to demobilize the working class and his green light to the military to disarm the movement, workers became confused and demoralized. By the time of Pinochet’s coup on September 11, it was already too late. Chile’s workers knew Popular Unity was betraying their hopes, but they had no alternative.


The bloody coup in Chile took a toll on the left internationally. Millions of people who were inspired by Allende’s “peaceful” road to socialism found it necessary to debate the lessons. Somelike the Chilean Communist Party, who throughout the period prior to the coup had consistently denounced as “counterrevolutionary’ every expression of mass working-class self-activity—concluded that the movement had gone “too far” and provoked the bosses. Nevertheless, the opposite is true. Chile’s workers did not go far enough.

Chile’s workers had shown that they had the power to beat the bosses. They created organizations with the potential to build a more genuinely democratic society than anything our rulers today could imagine. But the only way to fully realize that power was through a revolution that dismantled the power of the ruling class. Such a revolution required political organization—a party of workers who could argue for an alternative to reformism and win others to a revolutionary perspective.

Tragic and moving as it is, the legacy of Chile 1973 is not unique. The lessons were first drawn by Marx, at the time of the Paris Commune more than 100 years ago, and they were reiterated by Lenin writing State and Revolution on the eve of October: there is no way of carrying through a socialist transformation without first destroying the old state apparatus, with its standing army, its police, its judiciary, its bureaucratic hierarchy. In its place has to be established the rule of directly elected and recallable workers’ delegates, backed up by a workers’ militia.58

The lessons of Chile 1973 remain as important today as they have been in the past: “The state machine in even the most democratic bourgeois states is built on strictly hierarchic principles, with control over the activities of the army, the police and the civil service concentrated in the hands of the relatives and friends of those who hold economic power. And the ruling class will use this state machine to reestablish its own, untrammeled domination the [moment] it feels the balance of forces are favorable to it.”59

Despite the severe repression of workers and their organizations under Pinochet’s dictatorship, it was a trade union—the copper workers’ confederation (CTC)—that spearheaded the first major protest against the military regime in May 1983.60 Chile’s labor movement slowly rebuilt itself throughout the 1980s, explicitly linking itself to the militancy of the old CUT-the Central Unica de Trabajadores—of the Popular Unity period, when it established the new Central Unitaria de Trabajadores in August 1988. The main challenge now facing the Chilean left in the context of the new civilian government of the 1990s is to attempt to connect the new labor movement with the politics and ideas of revolutionary socialism. This is the best way to arm workers for the struggles not only of today, but also of the future.


1 El País Digital, 12 September 1998.
2 Socialist Worker (U.S.), 25 September 1998.
3 Mike González, “Chile 1972-73: The Workers United,” in Revolutionary Rehearsals, ed. Colin Barker (London: Bookmarks, 1987), p. 81. 4 David Beecham, “Chile: The End of the Parliamentary Road to Socialism” Socialist Review 57, September 1983, p. 7.
5 Ian Roxborough, Philip O’Brien, and Jackie Roddick, Chile: The State and Revolution (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1977), p. 63
6 Pe te r Winn , Wea vers of Revolu tion: The Yarur r Workers rkers a nd Chile s Road to Socialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 64.
7 Winn, p.65.
8 González, “Chile: 1972-73,” p. 45.
9 Ian Birchall and Chris Harman, “Chile: End of the Parliamentary Road, International Socialism 62, September 1973, p. 10. “large sectors of the10 Some sectors of the bourgeoisie wanted a coup. Other bourgeoisie and the middle strata were unwilling to overthrow bourgeois constitutionality without first using all the means at their disposal in an ef fort to limit the new government’s freedom of action. in this way, they felt UP could be kept in harness to the classic pattern of social democratic reformist government” (Roxborough et al., p. 104).
11 Roxborough et al., p. 104.
12 Roxborough et al., p. 73.
13 González, “Chile: 1972-73,” p. 44.
14 González, “Chile: 1972-73,” p. 44,
15 Roxborough et al., p. 61.
16 Régis Debray, The Chilean Revolution: Conversations with Allende (New York: Vintage, 1971), p. 97.
17 Salvador Allende “La vía chilena al socialismo,” rpt. Punto Final, 9 September 1998, internet electronic edition (my translation).
18 Allende, “La via chilena al socialismo.”
19 González, “Chile: 1972-73,” P. 45.
20 For a full account of this episode, see Winn.
21 See Mike González, “A People’s Tragedy,” Socialist Review, No. 222 (September 1998), p. 19.
22 Helios Prieto, Chile.- The Gorillas Are Amongst Us (London: Pluto Press, 1974).
23 González, “A People’s Tragedy,” p. 19.
24 González, “Chile: 1972-73,” pp. 47-48.
25 Roxborough et al., p. 152.
26 Roxborough et al., p. 152.
27 Peter Kornbluh, “The Chile Coup: the U.S. Hand,” iF Magazine, October 25,1998.
28 Central Intelligence Agency, “Notes on the Meeting with the President on Chile, “ September 15, 1970. National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Books, No. 8.
29 Department of Defense, “U.S. Milgroup, Situation Report #2,” October 1, 1973. National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Books, No. 8.
30 Department of State, “Chilean Executions,” November 16, 1973. National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Books, No. 8.
31 Socialist Worker (GB), November 20, 1971.
32 González, “A People’s Tragedy,” p. 19.
33 See González, “Chile: 1972-73,” pp. 50-5 1.
34 Roxborough et al., p. 169.
35 Prieto, p. 25.
36 González, “Chile and the Struggle for Workers’ Power,” p. 142.
37 Roxborough et al., p. 17 1.
38 Qouted in Roxborough et al., p. 171.
39 González, “Chile: 1972-73,” P. 49.
40 Quoted in González, “Chile: 1972-73,” p. 53.
41 Quoted in González, “Chile: 1972-73,” p. 53.
42 Quoted in González, “Chile: 1972-73,” p. 53.
43 Interview in the Belgian Communist paper, Drapeau Rouge, I January 1971. Quoted in Birchall and Harman, p. 11.
44 Speech of 10 September 1972, qtd. in Financial Times, 12 September 1972. Also qtd. in Birchall and Harman, p. 11.
45 González, “Chile: 1972-73, “ p. 55.
46 Quoted in González, “Chile: 1972-73,” p. 58.
47 Quoted in González, “Chile: 1972-73,” p. 58.
48 Birchall and Harman, p. 12.
49 Birchall and Harman, p. 12.
50 Prieto, p. 34.
51 Prieto, p. 35.
52 Birchall and Harman, p. 12.
53 Beecham, p. 13
54 Debray, pp. 100, 97.
55 Qtd. in Birchall and Harman, p. 13.
56 Birchall and Harman, p. 13.
57 Beecham, p. 14.
58 Birchall and Harman, p. 14.
59 Birchall and Harman, p. 14.
60 Alan Angell, “Unions and Workers in Chile during the 1980s,” The Struggle for Democracy in Chile 1982-1990, eds. Paul W Drake and Iván Jaksic (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1991), p. 189.

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