Salvador Allende’s Chile

On September 11 1973 the Chilean army carried out the coup d’etat which it had been planning for the preceding two and a half years.The Popular Unity government was overthrown and its President, Salvador Allende, was shot dead in his room at the Moneda Palace, a large section of which was destroyed by artillery and aerial bombardment.

The “Chilean road” had come to an end. New names had been added to the scroll of working class martyrs in Latin America.

Reformism of a new type: Allende’s experiment

The election of the Popular Unity (UP) was seen as an important step forward by large sections of the working class. The program of the UP was without doubt confused (particularly on the co-existence of the public and private sector).

Nonetheless it transcended the reformism of (Eduardo Frei’s) discredited Christian Democrats. It pledged to create a new Chile, to nationalize all foreign capital and foreign trade, to extend the Agrarian Reform of Frei, and to lay the basis for the creation of a new apparatus under the control of the working class. In brief, the UP saw the electoral victory as the beginning of the process of the transition to socialism.

So was Popular Unity a classical Popular Front as existed in Chile, France and Spain in the 1930’s, or was it something different?

A Popular Front embodies the collaboration between a working class party (or parties) and a party or parties of the bourgeoisie, and is a tactic utilized by sections of the bourgeoisie to contain the rise of the mass movement and keep a grip on working class parties. This was how the bourgeoisie conceived of the Chilean Popular Front in the Thirties.

Allende himself told Regis Debray (Conversations p118):

“We consciously entered into a coalition in order to be the left wing of the system – the capitalist system, that is. By contrast, today, as our program shows, we are struggling to change the system … Our objective is total, scientific, Marxist socialism”.

The point made by Allende is essentially correct. Thus the stated aim of the UP was socialism, whereas the Popular Fronts of the Thirties were pledged essentially to combat fascism together with important sections of the bourgeoisie, and remained completely within the ideological and political framework of bourgeois democracy.

The UP in Chile was thus, if anything, a reformist united front dominated by two large working class parties. Even if there had not been a single grouping of bourgeois or petty-bourgeois origin in the UP there is nothing to indicate that its policies would have been different in any way.

The second important point to grasp about the UP is that the Chilean CP was a right-wing force within it, and that the SP was well to the left of the CP on virtually every political question. This fact becomes rather decisive in understanding why the UP was not in a position to contain the mass movement by selective repression (as the bourgeoisie would have liked), or even to outlaw the MIR (Movement of the Revolutionary Left).

In the absence of a strong left-wing pole inside the SP it is quite clear that the CP would have irredeemably dragged the UP to the right and ultimately brought the Christian Democrats into the coalition, which would have made it a classical popular front of the type in which the Stalinist movement specialized in the Thirties.

The Chilean Socialist Party was founded in 1933 by Salvador Allende, amongst others. It was from the beginning a party which stated in its program its commitment to Marxism: “The Party adheres to Marxism as the method for interpreting reality and recognizes the class struggle as the motive force of history.” The SP was founded because its founders felt that the Chilean CP (which was then going through an ultra-left phase in accordance with the turn initiated by the Stalinist bureaucracy inMoscow) was incapable of responding to the needs of the Chilean proletariat.

The SP represented an attempt to build a working-class party based on Marxism, but not under the domination of the Stalinized Third International.

The SP, as a result, was different from traditional social-democratic parties, and Allende specifically stated in 1970 that the SP had nothing to do with “certain self-styled socialist parties in Europe”. Thus the SP never aligned itself with the Second International (it was the Radical Party which was the Chilean section of the Second International). Its internal life was much more open, and many SP militants in the Thirties (including Allende himself) used to study Trotsky as well as Lenin.

Although programmatically committed to Marxism, the SP had no real strategy for the seizure of power, and it was involved in a whole number of class-collaborationist electoral alliances, including the Popular Front of 1938, which was dominated by the Radical Party and its leader Cerda. It was, and remained, a centrist political formation, constantly vacillating under the pressure of different class forces in Chile.

It was the peculiar nature of the Socialist Party, together with the conditions which had brought the UP to power and the continuing mass mobilizations, which made the position of the Chilean CP somewhat awkward. The CP had been since the late Thirties a party of class collaboration.

After its ignominious role in the Cerda Popular Front of 1938, a Front which did not carry out one significant reform in favor of the urban or rural proletariat, the Chilean CP continued its electoralist orientation. In 1944 it participated in the government of right-wing Radical Party leader Gonzales Videla, who used the CP support to contain the rising working-class upsurge (there were three CP leaders in Videla’s cabinet) – and when this task had been accomplished he banned the CP, unleashed a ferocious repression against the workers, arrested 1000 CP militants, and sent 500 of them to a desert concentration camp in the North.It was not until 1958 that the ban on the CP was lifted. Then it embarked again on its old policies. No lessons were learnt. No questions were asked. The Cuban Revolution left no mark on the CP, and the parliamentary, non-violent road to socialism was pursued with a vengeance once again.

The First Year of Popular Unity

Allende was elected President on the basis of a minority vote, and the UP was dependent on Christian Democrat support in parliament. He assumed power in November 1970.

The first year of the UP saw the Allende administration carrying out a number of important reforms as had been promised in the UP program. Certainly there can be no doubt that many of these measures were immensely popular with the oppressed strata of Chilean society and had a big impact.

Beginning with the free distribution of half a liter of milk for all children, a number of new laws were passed to increase and develop the existing social services; a ceiling was placed on all governmental salaries. 45 political prisoners were released, and the special mobile group of riot police was disbanded.

There was a 60% increase in wages, and most prices were fixed. The first six months of 1971 saw inflation reduced to 7.5% compared to the first half of 1970 when it had risen to 22%. Major nationalizations were also begun, and within the first nine months a large proportion of the textile, iron, automobile and copper industries had been nationalized. In addition, 60% of the country’s banks were also taken into public ownership.

The nationalization of the three largest copper mines (all owned by American capital) – Cerro, Annaconda and Kennecott – was a measure of some importance, particularly since no compensation was paid. The UP argued that the profits which the companies had extracted over the years was ample compensation.

There were cases of factories being nationalized after being occupied by workers protesting against redundancies. This happened in May 1971 in the case of the Ford plant, and in November 1970 with the Northern Indiana Brass Company’s local subsidiary.

More significant was the seizure by the workers of 14 textile mills in May 1971, which compelled the UP to take them under state control immediately to maintain production. In addition five other textile plants were also taken over to provide a base for the new state-owned industry. By the end of the year 263 factories had been occupied and taken under state control.

It was these measures in particular which convinced the bourgeoisie that the UP was not going to restrict its take-overs to obvious anachronisms such as the copper mines, but was challenging the manufacturing sector of the bourgeoisie as well.

Imperialism is prepared to tolerate a certain measure of nationalization provided that compensation is guaranteed, but in return it wants the prestige gained by the government carrying out the nationalizations to be used to contain, or if necessary repress, the mass movement.

But the UP government was unable to satisfy imperialism by containing the mass movement. Its dilemma lay in the fact that by its very nature it was also unable to satisfy the hopes and aspirations which its victory had aroused in the broad working class and peasant masses. Its vacillations were utilized by the bourgeoisie, as the latter together with the multinational corporations of Wall Street prepared to bring about its downfall.

What, then, were the real problems confronted by the UP government? Fidel Castro expressed them rather succinctly in his important speech on Chile in Havana on September 28, 1973:

“In the first place there was an intact state apparatus. There were armed forces that called themselves apolitical, institutional, that is apparently neutral in the revolutionary process. There was the bourgeois parliament where a majority of members jumped to the tune of the ruling classes. There was a judicial system which was completely subservient to the reactionaries …”

They key problem was therefore how to smash the state apparatus of the bourgeoisie. This problem was at best understood by the major components of the UP in a gradualist, reformist way. There was a complete failure to understand the nature of the Chilean army and its functions. There was a failure to see that the creation of an alternative apparatus based on the workers and peasants was vital if the bourgeoisie was going to be defeated.

Imperialism and the bourgeoisie prepare their offensive

At first US imperialism adopted a “wait and see” attitude to the UP government. However as soon as the nationalizations began in earnest, the US declared economic war on Chile.

All economic aid and credits were suspended, and a de facto boycott of Chile by American capital began. Internally, the more vigorous implementation of Frei’s Agrarian Reforms saw the agrarian bourgeoisie embarking on a course of sabotaging agricultural production. The urban bourgeoisie, in total control of distribution, began to hoard and create a black market on a vast scale in Chile.

During this whole period the USA did not for one moment cut off military aid to the Chilean armed forces. Having put the economic screws on Allende, they continued to strengthen the state apparatus of the Chilean bourgeoisie, which they knew full well would at a later date be required to throttle the UP.

Given the preparations which the Americans and their friends in Chile were making, the UP leaders showed little understanding of what was involved.

The Communist Party did have a line: they would have made virtually every concession possible to the bourgeois parties. However this would have resulted in the disintegration of the UP because of the opposition it would have encountered from within the SP and the MAPU.

The only other alternative was for the UP to go on the offensive, mobilize the workers, expropriate large chunks of the private sector, and take distribution into its own hands. If this had been done in the early part of 1972 it would have disrupted the plans of the bourgeoisie, put the latter on the defensive, and improved the relationship of class forces in Chile in favor of the working masses.

But to do that would have required a break with the addiction to bourgeois legality and its rigid constitutionalism which would prove to be the rock on which the UP foundered and was crushed.

By the autumn of 1972 the bourgeoisie had mounted its offensive. It went on strike against the Popular Unity government. Within a week roads were blocked, production centers abandoned, transport withdrawn.

Faced with the life and death question of the organization of production and distribution, the working class developed those organs by which it could organize those activities itself – the cordones industriales, the JAPs, and the coordinating committees.

These institutions of the workers had existed prior to October, grouping together factories in the same geographical area so as to give unified leadership in economic demands.

The owners’ strike saw their development as an apparatus existing alongside the state, and capable of taking on more and more of the functions of the state and the ruling class.

Factories abandoned by their owners were requisitioned, production was organized by the workers, commercial secrecy abolished by opening the books. The executive of each cordon was elected by mass assemblies and delegated to perform specific tasks.

Coordinating committees provided the central nerve of the workers’ organization, linking the cordones to one another. Goods traveled straight from factory to consumer. Shops joining the bosses’ strike were forcibly re-opened. Lorries standing idle were requisitioned. Local militias watched and guarded these activities.

The reaction of Popular Unity was very different. At first they appealed to the patriotic spirit of the owners. Where cordones arose, they made every effort to restrain them, calling them illegal. Then a state of emergency was declared, and the military called in to break the strike. The Allende government was relying on the very forces which were later to depose it, while rejecting the forces that were the key to the Chilean revolution.

An increasing polarization was taking place, and more and more workers were beginning to understand the need to fight the bourgeoisie. But the right wing within the UP (the CP and the SP right) wanted to return to the bourgeoisie the factories taken over by the workers.

Faced with growing inflation, the public sector workers staged a strike for higher wages. The government branded them as “agents of the right”, like those who took part in the illegal occupations of factories and of land. It was these attacks made by the UP and the CP in particular which drove sections, and important sections, of the working class into the arms of the right.

Instead the UP took a step somewhat unique in the history of the international workers’ movement (though it must be said not at all unique to the Stalinist segment of it): the leading naval and military chiefs were brought in to the cabinet, in an attempt to create “stability”, and no doubt “unify the nation”.

The military chiefs accepted cabinet posts (General Prats became Minister of the Interior), but all of them left soon after the elections of March 1973. The withdrawal of the “uniforms” from the cabinet was merely the beginning of the process which culminated in the September 11 coup.

On June 29, the Second Armored Regiment made an attempt at a coup, and led an assault on the Moneda Palace. The reaction of the working class was immediate, with factory occupations and a strengthening of the workers’ action committees.

Nearly a million workers marched in the evening of the 29th to demand that Allende dissolve parliament and execute the plotters of the abortive coup.

This was an important test for the UP. If the working class movement, its trade unions and its political parties (inside and outside the UP) had been united to defend the UP against the threat of military dictatorship, the picture would have been significantly different. If a revolutionary party had existed in Chile at the time, its intervention could have been decisive, but the revolutionary groups did not constitute such a party, and the UP was totally engrossed in the logic of its own “experiment.”

The UP’s failure to mobilise and arm the masses was fatal in every sense of the word. A renewed bourgeois offensive began on July 25 with a strike by truck owners. Then came a right wing purge of the army and navy, while Popular Unity remained silent.

Allende told workers to stand by and allow the military to break the owners’ strike. Instead the army collaborated with the bourgeoisie to spread the strike and break the workers’ militias.

Despite the mounting evidence, Communist Party leader Luis Corvalan continued to reassure the military chiefs that no lessons had been learned, in a speech reported in Chile Hoy on July 31:

“They [the reactionaries] are claiming that we have an orientation of replacing the professional army. No sir, we continue and will continue to support keeping our armed institutions strictly professional”.

This attitude of the UP leaders convinced the armed forces that there would be no serious organised resistance to a coup d’etat.

They began to plan the last stages of the coup together with representatives of US imperialism and the Brazilian military junta.

On 4 September up to 800,000 supporters of the UP marched past the Moneda Palace to commemorate the third anniversary of the Chile experiment.

Little did they know it, but in exactly a week the UP would cease to exist.

The workers chanted “Allende, the people are defending you: hit the reactionaries hard.” The mood of the masses was militant. They were waiting for a lead that never came.

On September 11 the Chilean military, with the backing of all ruling class parties and the fascists, launched a coup d’etat.

At the Moneda Palace Salvador Allende decided not to surrender but to go down fighting back, with a gun in his hand.

Could it be that in his final hours Allende decided symbolically to illustrate the futility of the “peaceful road”, and point the way to the future?