Issue 225 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 1998 Copyright © Socialist Review
When the English High Court finally acknowledged that the former dictator Pinochet was entitled to full diplomatic immunity, feelings of outrage and revulsion were felt among millions of Chilean workers, and workers around the world. Pinochet stood at the head of a ruthless military junta which smashed all resistance, destroyed the organised trade union movement and the Chilean left, and imposed a reign of terror for 17 years.
Why did the Chilean ruling class unleash such savage and terrifying repression against working people? The answer to this question lies in the development of the class struggle in Chile.
With the election of the left wing Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende in 1970, a rapid process of radicalisation developed at an astonishing speed. The Chilean revolution was like a gigantic wave which engulfed and awakened the rebellious spirit of the immense majority. It was a powerful force which unleashed the creativity of the working class.
The highest expression of that creativity reached its climax with the formation of the cordones industriales, the equivalent of the Russian revolutionary soviets of 1905 and 1917 on a small scale, but with the same essence. The cordones sprang up as a product of the great forward movement and initiative from below. After the bourgeoisie went on the offensive in June 1973, workers began a massive takeover of industries, assets, student and commercial buildings and built workers' assemblies to organise production and distribution.
The cordones were fully autonomous class organs and grouped workers regardless of political leaning. For the first time in the history of the class struggle in Chile, the working class planted the seeds of a new society - democratic workers' control of the means of production from the point of production. This new form of organisation, born in the heat of the struggle, posed the question of an embryonic dual power in Chilean society. The cry of workers at that time was 'all power to the working people' and they urged the government to stop the conciliatory manoeuvres with the right wing Christian Democratic Party.
The leaders of the Popular Unity government, where the Communist and Socialist parties were the main protagonists, were caught between two powerful camps: the ruling class and the working masses. They were completely trapped within the framework of the capitalist system.
On the one hand, they paralysed and confused the working class struggle and organisation, and on the other they compromised with the Chilean bourgeoisie, when the class struggle was already taking place outside parliament in mass demonstrations and factory occupations - a sharp conflict between capital and labour. The tragedy was that even the most radicalised elements within Popular Unity neither broke organically nor ideologically from that strategy and structure.
The powerful force of revolution caught me in a poverty stricken suburb of Santiago, the capital city. The shanty town dwellers were awakened with the thunder of revolution too. From my earliest memories we had always fought for a place to live and fought against the oppressive intervention of the state. Our main objective was decent human habitation, and better services such as health, transport and education. The struggle for a place to live intensified during the Popular Unity government. A widespread occupation of land began to take place, and these occupations had to be defended.
Here again, the living struggle taught us and we built embryonic organs of self administration in defence of food supplies, health and education. This was truly democratic and collective self administration of the people.
My political education was formed in those exciting years of rebellion. To participate in a demonstration of more than half a million people and feel that my spirit was part of an immense collective power with one sole aim - to end the yoke of exploitation - is an experience which is ingrained in my inner being.
The miserable isolated existence that the bourgeois system imposes on millions of us fades away in revolutionary times. Life as we knew it was taking place outside of the oppressive nuclear family. Revolution frees the spirit of all the oppressed in capitalist society. They collectively begin to challenge the very existence of the system itself.
This was the precise reason why the Chilean bourgeoisie finally opted in 1973 to unleash a bloodbath against the revolutionary movement. The official leadership of the government confused and disarmed the working class by constantly presenting the armed forces as 'constitutionalist', by introducing generals into the government itself, by giving the army the right to search for arms and intimidate workers and poor people. The army was allowed to train for the final assault of 11 September 1973.
That final assault left an entire generation of workers with lessons which must never be forgotten: the frightening experience of counter-revolutionary terror and - in spite of the defeat - the most dramatic moments of the class struggle. The working class showed a different alternative that was revealed in the creation of cordones industriales. By doing so, they germinated the seeds of a future society that could be based on solidarity and the free development of all individuals.
The Chilean revolution encapsulated the chilling warning of Saint Just, one of the leaders of the great French Revolution: 'Those who make half a revolution dig their own grave.'
Mario Nain was sentenced to 20 years under the Pinochet regime. He served 2 1/2 years before eventually fleeing Chile
The release of the long awaited report by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Com mission (TRC) has brought to an end a two year long investigation into political violence in the apartheid era. It was supposed to heal the deep wounds caused by apartheid, yet the British media have portrayed it as causing further divisions.
The legal underpinning of the TRC refers to 'the need for understanding but not vengeance...for reparation not retaliation...for Ubunta (humanity) and not victimisation'. This was driven by the conviction that truth would set South Africa free, that the words of the past could be healed without the need for serious accounting. The commission's remit did require some sort of accounting. Panels of judges were appointed to decide whether applicants had made 'full disclosure' about actions 'associated with political objectives' and thus qualified for amnesty. By the time the deadline fell the commission was swamped. More than 700 people had applied. The result is that the amnesty hearings continue.
The ANC attempted to block the final report as it felt that criticism of the armed struggle against apartheid could not be treated as 'crimes against humanity' and therefore analogous with the violence of the apartheid state. The ANC argued that its actions had to be understood in the context of a 'desperate struggle for liberation'.
While you can understand the outrage of the ANC's representatives, the attempt to suppress the report by going to the courts is surely a mistake. It can only leave the overwhelming impression that they have something dreadful to hide. After all, it was the National Party that ruled from 1948 to 1990 which institutionalised the apartheid system and then used every means at its disposal to defend white rule. In 1972 Prime Minister BJ Forster had the effrontery to describe South Africa as a 'happy police state'. The Soweto revolt in June 1976 put an end to that. It also saw the beginning of mass resistance to apartheid.
PW Botha, the prime minister from 1978-88 who refused to attend any commission hearings despite being ordered to by the courts, built up a highly militarised secret apparatus around the state security council which authorised hit squads to eliminate the government's opponents. How galling to hear Pik Botha, ex foreign minister, claim in his evidence to the commission that when they instructed the security forces to 'eliminate' their political opponents what they had intended was for that to be 'brought about by detention, not murder'.
Apartheid's last president, FW de Klerk, criticised the report, claiming 'the result is that we ourselves abolished apartheid, not because we were forced to, but because we came to the realisation that it was wrong'. Square this with the comments of the National Party spokesman on 2 February 1991, when all the apartheid legislation was scrapped, who said 'we are doing this in order to prevent a revolution'.
But de Klerk has blood on his hands. At the same time as negotiating with the ANC, he allowed his security forces to wreak havoc in the townships by mounting a bloody campaign against ANC supporters in alliance with the Zulu Inkhata.
What is undoubtedly true is that the ANC leadership dealt harshly with dissent. In a large part this reflected a paranoia of being infiltrated by spies of the apartheid regime. But it was also a reflection of nationalist politics. The nationalists aspire to take control of the state they are fighting. Their organisations are necessarily hierarchically organised and impose military discipline. By contrast, for a mass workers' movement open debate and clear arguments are essential.
There is simply no question of comparing the actions of the ANC with the atrocities committed by the apartheid state. The ANC was conducting a struggle against a brutally oppressive regime that was prepared to drench South Africa in blood in order to preserve apartheid.
The basis for the amnesty hearings was laid during the pre-election negotiations. Recognising that it could no longer hold onto state power, the old regime was determined to protect itself from prosecution. It would not settle unless it obtained an amnesty agreement. Since the ANC was not prepared to remove the regime by revolution and settled for negotiations, the old rulers were able to insist that they escape any real accountability for their crimes. Out of this compromise the TRC was born.
Ultimately those who supported the truth and reconciliation process will argue that it was not really aimed at individuals but that it was a serious attempt to move a whole society to a better future. This is well intentioned but naive. The compromise on which the TRC was based has left most of the wealth in the hands of a tiny white minority. For most black people nothing of substance seems to have changed. This state of affairs has manifested itself in the most incredible violence. There are 15,000 murders each year in South Africa. The report also condemns big business for its collusion with apartheid, arguing that it 'benefited from operating in a racially structured context'. It calls for higher taxation of the mainly white rich, but since the ANC has adopted economic policies similar to that of Blair's government in this country, this seems highly unlikely.
Bruce George came to Britain in 1976 from South Africa as a refugee after Soweto. He was actively involved in the anti-apartheid movement