Issue 222 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published August/September 1998 Copyright © Socialist Review
The left government in Chile-an experiment in democratic socialism-was brutally crushed by a military coup 25 years ago this month. Mike Gonzalez looks at what went wrong and why
General Augusto Pinochet, ex-president of Chile, was recently named a senator for life; among the perks that go with the job is a lifetime immunity from prosecution for crimes against society. The man who organised a military coup 25 years ago, on 11 September, and went on to murder and torture tens of thousands of socialists, trade unionists and students, will enjoy his old age and his enormous wealth undisturbed.
When Pinochet ordered the bombing of Chile's presidential palace on that September morning, and killed the then president, Salvador Allende, the echoes were immediate. The reason why that day was so significant was because for three years the country had experienced a period of enormous social change. The Chilean ruling class had a reputation for devotion to constitutional politics - Pinochet's coup demonstrated that no ruling class is prepared to let power slip out of its hands, whatever the cost. In the days and weeks that followed, the new rulers of Chile behaved with incredible ferocity; everyone identified with the movement for change was rounded up, jailed, tortured, and some 30,000 were murdered during the following year. Hundreds of thousands more were exiled.
Why was the response of the Chilean ruling class so barbaric? And why did Chile become so central to a political argument that spread through the left across the world in the months after the coup ?
When the presidential candidate of the left wing Popular Unity coalition, Salvador Allende, was elected in November 1970 there were massive street celebrations. Allende, a doctor and an old campaigner, always claimed to be Marxist, and his Popular Unity coalition consisted of six parties including the Communists and the Socialists. More importantly, he had come to power on a tide of mass struggle. Marches, demonstrations, strikes and land occupations escalated through 1968 and 1969, particularly when the land reforms promised by the previous Christian Democratic government never materialised because the big landowners refused to allow them to happen. The number of land occupations rose from nine in 1967 to 148 two years later. At least two of the smaller parties in Popular Unity were formed by disillusioned radicals committed to the agrarian reforms. Inside the working class, with its long tradition of strong trade unions reflected in large Communist and Socialist parties, there was growing militancy. There were 5,295 strikes in 1970 (more than twice as many as the previous year) which involved over 300,000 workers. And a student movement beginning in 1969 spread across the country demanding democratic involvement and greater access to the universities for workers. These were the people who had campaigned and voted for Allende and It was their expectations he symbolised.
There were key promises that Allende had made-to nationalise the copper mines, Chile's key export industry; to carry out the land redistribution the previous government had Wed to deliver; to take key areas of the economy into public ownership; to raise living standards for the majority of Chileans. Internationally, Chile's longstanding subservience to the United States would be ended and the new Chile would be anti-imperialist and independent.
What Popular Unity's supporters did not know at the time was that before formally assuming the presidency Allende had signed an agreement with the Christian Democrats called the Statute of Guarantees. It was a promise not to interfere with the media, education, the police or the armed forces-in other words, an undertaking not to threaten the capitalist state. This was a secret document-its language was very different from the speeches then being delivered by Allende and other members of his government who were proclaiming the arrival of 'people's power'. More importantly, it was a signal to the Chilean bourgeoisie that it could begin to mobilise its resources against the new government, which had declared its devotion to bourgeois legality, and whose leader, Allende, was already imploring the workers 'not to do anything impulsive'. The Chilean ruling class immediately suspended further investment and began to hoard goods; where possible it shifted resources abroad. The US suspended all nonmilitary aid-and curiously (or perhaps it isn't so curious) the Disney Corporation greatly increased the flood of its material into Chile. As the authors Mattelart and Dorfman pointed out in their How to Read Donald Duck 'entertainment is not a light industry', but a heavy weapon of class war.
The multinationals which had owned Chilean copper now tried to stop its export. The landowners prepared to go to the courts, knowing they would get a sympathetic hearing from the judges if any attempt was made to take their land. And the Christian Democrats, with their majority in parliament, set up their legal roadblocks. In the first few months of 1971 Allende nationalised 90 firms and took over 1,400 farms.
Thousands were rounded up to be jailed and tortured
Then, in May, he announced that the process would go no further. What he had done so far was carried out within legal parameters. The next step 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.
Allende still spoke of 'socialism' - but what he meant by that was a mixed economy with a strong state sector intervening to balance the system. His project was to modernise the Chilean state, raise the level of industrial activity, partly by raising consumption, partly by modernising agriculture, and diversify away from copper. What the working class understood by socialism, however, in the highly politicised atmosphere of early 1971, was a question of power - 'popular power'. By late 1971, when Fidel Castro visited Allende to congratulate him on the conquest of power by peaceful means (another wonderful irony), the right wing was feeling confident - Allende was going to keep to his bargain, It seemed. But the ruling dam and its supporters would not. In November the bourgeois ladies of Santiago and their maids marched through the streets waving empty pots and pans and complaining of shortages. There were real shortages of basic foods by now-but it was the workers who had difficulty finding eggs, soap and essential items, most of which were hoarded in the houses of the rich. Already the committees for food distribution set up by the government earlier that year (the JAPS) were being used in local areas to distribute food directly.
As 1972 began, the right took comfort from Allende's hesitations and his continuous reassurances that his government would stay within the law. In January and February the right went on to the offensive, impeaching the left wing Interior minister and blocking nationalisations. Throughout the first half of 1972 the grassroots of Popular Unity's parties demanded action against the right and a continuing transformation; in July and August a People's Assembly met in the city of Concepcion demanding the creation of a different, workers' power.
At every level-in the economy, in political life, in the media, in the streets-the battle lines were being drawn. An increasingly confident right was now openly talking in its press of bringing down Allende's government using economic and propaganda weapons. And while the trade unions and others fought back, Allende was locked in the hesitations that his compromises had created. Clearly he still believed in a 'Chilean road to socialism' where the ruling class accepted democratic decisions even If they threatened their Interests; the instrument of social change, in this view, was the parliamentary majority. But the ruling class had already publicly declared its intention to act outside the institutions.
The turning point came in October 1972. The lorry owners, small and medium businessmen, put their vehicles into locked pounds, immobilised them, and armed themselves to resist any attempts to use the lorries. They had the support of all the right wing organisations. In Chile road transport was the major source of distribution-so this was a knife held to Allende's throat-yet he hesitated and called on the striking lorry drivers to act within the law. This was the moment when the real alternatives at play became obvious; Allende was powerless, so the working class and the peasantry exercised their power independently of the government. They seized the lorries, broke open the supermarkets whose owners had closed them in support of the lorry men and threw out the factory owners who tried to stop the machines. New organisations arose overnight that expressed this new kind of power.
Lenin defined a revolutionary situation as one where the workers would no longer allow themselves to be ruled in the old way, and the ruling class could not enforce their rule any longer. At such moments the workers, movement is at its most creative and free. New organisations are created that express the fact that power has passed into new hands, that the traditional divisions that split the working class have been overcome, that power has shifted from the top to the bottom. In Russia in 1917 these new organisations were called soviets- in Chile the cordones. And It was these organisations that broke the lorry owners' strike.
Looking back, it seems crazy that the representative of 'people's power' should respond to its reality by calling in the army to restore order Yet that is what Allende did. The Communist Party, Allende's own Socialist Party, and other elements of the Popular Unity coalition determined that the key thing at this stage was to keep the state intact. Faced with two kinds of power, they chose the bourgeois state. In the end the cordones and the glimpse of workers' power that they offered, struck fear into both Allende and the ruling classes.
In the months that followed, there were two kinds of power in Chile - a power from below that resolved conflicts by direct organisation and began to produce new and highly democratic organs of power, and a government struggling to reimpose its authority over those workers. The new economic plan proposed in January 1973 by economy minister Jose Millas, a Communist Party member, reduced the state sector of the economy and threw the government's weight behind the official trade unions and against the grassroots organisation.
The March elections of 1973 produced a curious result. Popular Unity's vote rose again, and passed the magical 50 percent. It was curious because the increased vote reflected the radicalisation of events, the Increased confidence and involvement of workers and their families. Yet they were voting for a government which was using every instrument to disarm and demobilise their organisations. This was fundamentally because none of the left organisations that were critical of Allende, and were involved in and sometimes leading the struggles from below were willing to break politically with Popular Unity-to declare themselves the political representatives of workers' power They still believed they could win Popular Unity round to a more radical position. It was a familiar scenario-and a familiar delusion.
If Allende hesitated, the ruling class did not; it had seen an authentic revolutionary power-and it was afraid. The Chilean bourgeoisie saw its Interests under severe threat-and its allies abroad, particularly In Washington, were equally concerned that the ripples might spread beyond Chile. After March the right was preparing its assault on Popular Unity. On 29 June a tank regiment took to the streets - its attempted coup was easily stopped, but it was equally clear that this was just a rehearsal. Joint military manoeuvres with the United States began; the right wing newspapers and media began to speak insistently of armed groups and left wing plots. By July left wing sympathisers within the armed forces were already being arrested and tortured. In August the lorry owners again declared a national shutdown.
This time Allende immediately formed a new 'national security cabinet which included army general Augusto Pinochet, to 'restore order'. In the countryside, army units moved against peasant organisations, and known left wingers were detained and tortured.
Allende: hesitation led to disaster
The cordones reappeared and began to publish a newspaper called Tarea urgente (Urgent Task)but the tragedy was that it was too late to create die coordinated revolutionary challenge to the power of the Chilean state, a power Allende had already handed back to the unreconstructed armed forces of the bourgeoisie. People fought, and fought with great courage. The Communist Party's response was to publish posters saying 'No to the violence of left and right, standing back from the struggle unfolding before their eyes.
There was a mass demonstration on 4 September in Santiago. About half a million attended. Yet the newsreels of the day show a muted, demoralised crowd; filing past Allende's presidential palace, there is a terrible air of defeat about them. When 11 September came, the coup was quick; resistance was minimal and sporadic. In a sense, the battle was already lost-and none of the organisations of the left, with the exception of the Guevarist MW, and left groups within the Socialist Party, even called for resistance.
The thousands of deaths came later, when the ruling class set out to systematically destroy the layer of working class leaders and militants who had exercised their power through that extraordinary period between October 1972 and August 1973. It was both the revenge of a clam and a rooting out of the experience and the memory of that power. The torture was not carried out by mindless maniacs but by trained servants of a class that had seen the foundations of its power shaken.
In the months that followed, protest meetings and demonstrations were organised all over the world. The music of Chile, so closely identified with the Popular Unity years, became the new revolutionary anthems - Venceremos', 'The people united shall never be defeated'. More significantly, the analysis of the Chilean experience became the basis for a new current of thought within the European Communist Parties, 'Eurocommunism', a pragmatic 'realism'. First presented in Italy by Enrico Berlinguer, general secretary of the huge Italian CP, the argument was that the coup in Chile had happened because things had 'gone too far', because they had lost the support of 'sectors of the bourgeoisie and the middle class'. In Italy it led the Communist Party into alliances with the right wing Christian Democrats; elsewhere it produced an argument that in various different ways slowly abandoned the very idea of socialism as anything other than a utopian dream. Implicitly, the conclusion drawn by the Communist Parties was that socialism and social democracy were one and the same thing, and that workers' power was a dream.
Yet for those of us within the revolutionary socialist tradition Chile showed the very opposite. It showed the power that workers have, and that when they exercise that power they can create in the course of their struggle what Marx called 'the most extreme democracy'. It also showed the truth of another of Marx's assertions-that when the power of the ruling class Is challenged by a revolutionary movement, only two alternatives remain on the historical agenda - socialism or barbarism.