By Rosalind Robson
On 11 September 1973 a bloody military coup in Chile ousted the Popular Unity government of President Salvador Allende. Allende was killed defending the Presidential Palace during the coup. Workers in the factories attempted to defend themselves against the military attacks - but they were not sufficiently organised or sufficiently armed. They went down to defeat.
As the new military regime of General Pinochet attempted to establish itself, hundreds of thousands of working-class militants and political activists were tortured and killed. The football stadium in the capital city, Santiago, was turned into a giant prison, torture centre and abattoir for the Chilean left. Thirty thousand people - the majority asylum seekers - were sent into exile, perhaps to face torture and death in their home countries.
Allende's Popular Unity (UP) coalition government - which had been elected in 1970 - attempted to introduce important reforms for the working class. Its two main parties were the pro-Moscow Communist Party and Allende's Socialist Party. Allende considered himself a Marxist. There were other smaller parties in the government, and the Guevarist MIR and the Trotskyists outside it.
The Chilean Communist Party adhered to a typical Stalinist stagist strategy for achieving socialism in Latin American countries. The first stage was to defeat the "reactionary feudal sector". The workers must form an alliance with the "progressive" national bourgeoisie. Only after this stage had been completed should the workers' movement could proceed to a struggle for socialism.
Yet a distinction between the feudalistic oligarchy whose power was based on landownership and the industrial bourgeoisie was by no means clear cut anywhere in Latin America and perhaps in Chile least of all, which was a fully bourgeois society. And even if there were an important economic distinction between landlords and capitalists, politically the ruling class as a whole was united against any threat from the working class or from any "alliance" dominated by the working class.
This Stalinist policy, adapted to Chilean conditions, would contribute to the disastrous fate of the UP government.
The Socialist Party was nominally Marxist. One of the policy statements adopted at its formation in 1933 declared the impossibility of an evolutionary road to socialism: the workers must overthrow the capitalist state if socialism was to be built in Chile. That was still party policy in 1973 but it was not a policy that the government adhered to in practice.
The Popular Unity government came to power on a wave of radicalisation in 1970, boosted by dissatisfaction with a government of the Christian Democrats, a so-called "centre", but in reality thoroughly bourgeois party. However, even these Christian Democrats had to respond to a radicalised Chilean working class and introduce limited land reform and some nationalisation. Their reforms did not go far enough and served only to awaken the aspirations of the Chilean people. Allende promised more and won the Presidential election in September 1970.
The Popular Unity government stood on two related traditions. First of Chilean economic nationalism: Chilean economic development should take place without reliance on aid or loans or investment from abroad, particularly the United States.
Second that of previous Chilean "popular fronts". Between 1938 and 1946 there had been a "Popular Front" government in Chile, led by the then main middle class party, the Radical Party, supported by the Communist Party and the Socialist Party. UP was different in as much as it did not include bourgeois parties.
Popular Unity's reforms were far-reaching. There have been few other "reformist" parties since the end of the Second World War, anywhere in the world, to introduce such radical measures. For instance, by 1973 about 40% of land had been expropriated and turned into smaller plots and co-operatives.
Although the government said it was committed to the "mixed economy" - the majority of industry would remain in private hands - its nationalisation programme was extensive. Copper and nitrate mines were nationalised, as were the banks. The government intended compensation but was unable to afford it! Many smaller industries and businesses were nationalised too - in many cases on the initiative of the workers.
Even before it was elected Popular Unity frightened the US ruling class, then facing the inglorious end to war in Vietnam. From day one the US State Department, headed by future Nobel Peace Prize winner Henry Kissinger, funded the military and right-wing opposition to Popular Unity and used every trick they knew to destabilise the Chilean government. The 1973 coup was actively backed by the CIA, but was by no means the first coup they had tried to engineer.
For the first eighteen months, the Popular Unity government enjoyed immense popularity. Bit by bit, for a number of reasons, it began to be destabilised. Some of the reasons for this were:
- The withdrawal of credit by the US. Chile already had a huge debt to the USA, the result of borrowing for compensation payments for nationalisations made by the Christian Democrat government. The United States tightened up its repayments schedules.
- Financial speculation (there was a run on the banks immediately after the election).
- Low agricultural productivity.
- Wage increases for workers - a wave of strikes continued right through to 1973.
This led economic crisis and crippling inflation which by 1972 had generated a middle-class and bourgeois reaction threatening the existence of the government. The government's response to the situation was disastrous.
Instead of building on the mass working-class support for its policies it grew less inclined to make concessions to the workers. It did not wish to alienate the bosses and their military backers.
In May 1972 a demonstration in support of further nationalisation in one of the major cities, Concepcion, was fired upon by cabineros acting on the orders of the Communist Party mayor.
Instead of acting against the Chilean financiers, the government encouraged wage "restraint" in order to "conquer" inflation.
Various negotiations were entered into with the Christian Democrats. The idea was to win over the middle classes; the effect could only be to discourage and confuse the working class.
Allende believed the military would not attack a constitutionally elected government. He knew certain military elements were in favour of overthrowing the government, but believed a loyal "constitutional" majority among the officers would not allow it to happen. Right up until the day before the coup during which they killed him Allende believed the neutrality of the armed forces.
And so Allende government systematically disorganised and diminished its own popular support whilst doing nothing to defend itself against or prepare for the capitalist backlash.
In August 1972 the government sent in the police against a shopkeepers' strike in Santiago to try to get them to open up (many of them had been hoarding and conducting black market trading). This prompted violence from the right-wing fascist opposition.
In October 1972 the truck owners went on strike against a proposed state-controlled truck company. The strike spread to many other small businesses. In Parliament the opposition tried to impeach four government ministers.
During the middle-class strikes the Chilean workers had tried to keep the factories operating, to defend the government and to try to stop the worsening of shortages. Did Allende build on this support? No! Allende responded to the crisis by taking three military leaders into his Cabinet!
At this time workers' councils known as cordones were formed in several areas of the country. This was not widespread but it was extremely important. These councils spanned several factories. They by-passed the unions. Partly they saw their goal as keeping production going during a crisis, organising transport and so on. They also saw themselves as defenders of the gains the workers had won under Allende.
Armed detachments were organised to meet the right-wing threat. These organisations, unfortunately, were nowhere near widespread enough to save the Chilean workers from the savagery of the army, unleashed against them on 11 September.
Large sections of the Socialist Party supported the cordones, albeit passively. The Communist Party was very hostile to them as both a challenge to their hegemony in the trade unions and a source of intensified middle-class alarm.
The March 1973 legislative elections saw Popular Unity increase its share of the vote to 45%. (It had been 36% in 1970). At this point Allende's generals resigned from the government. By May the right was out in force on the streets, demonstrating against the government. The mood was heavy, there was talk everywhere of an imminent military coup.
The atmosphere was also confused. For instance Public Works workers joined the anti-government demonstrations - to demand the expansion of the social sector of the economy!
Now a strike in the copper mines set the scene for the coup to overthrow the government. The miners struck against the withdrawal of the sliding scale of wages. Under this system - a demand won in the first months of the government - wages were pegged to inflation and would rise automatically with the cost of living. It lasted until July 1973 and cost the government $40 million.
With this strike forming a background there was an attempted coup, led by a rebel section of the military in June 1973. It was not supported by the whole of the military, only because they had not yet fully formulated their policy. The time they thought was not yet ripe. Over the next months the government lurched from crisis to crisis.
It still enjoyed massive support amongst the working class. Only five days before the final coup a million people demonstrated in Santiago to celebrate the third anniversary of Allende's election.
The tragedy was that Allende was unable or unprepared to assimilate the lessons of the previous year and a half. At the same demonstration he spoke of Chile's imminent return to prosperity, if only the workers were prepared to hang on a bit longer. He was convinced that the military would not interfere (as if it had not already done so!) to subvert the workings of constitutional government. Unwittingly, he helped lull the workers as the Generals prepared to slaughter them.
In the event, apart from small armed detachments of workers, the Chilean proletariat was unprepared for the work of defending the government and fighting the armed forces. They were defeated with minimal fighting and then subjected to a terrible butchering.
There followed 16 years - until 1989, when the junta held an election - of the viciously anti-working class Pinochet government.
The left in Chile was defeated and demoralised. The Communist Party split. Some of them continued, like a broken record, to criticise the "ultra-left" for alienating the middle class. Some joined the Castroite guerrillas.
Since the military junta stepped down in Chile the people have seen the rule of neo-liberal governments. A coalition led by Socialist Party leader Ricardo Lagos currently governs. But working class is still powerful and this summer saw a general strike involving hundreds of thousands of public sector workers, protesting at high unemployment, low wages and long working hours.
The Chilean coup was a huge event for the international labour and socialist movement. Chile had a long history of "constitutional", parliamentary government - they called it the England of South America. But still, when the crunch came, as the workers organised to defend the gains they had won under the reform government, the bosses called in the military.
No matter how sincere its leaders, and Allende's government was undoubtedly sincere about reform, such a government is a disaster for our class. On the one hand it stirs up and alarms the capitalists, but on the other hand it is not prepared to act for the workers according to the logic of the class struggle it inflames, challenging the capitalist system. Allende attempted to introduce reforms only at a pace agreeable to the ruling class and acted as a brake on the mobilisation of the working class. Then the ruling class cut him down, and the Chilean labour movement went along with him.
Marxist socialists have pointed out that Allende's refusal to arm the workers was decisive in the defeat of the working class. This is, of course, true. But it was only the last act in a tragedy at the core of which was the Popular Unity government's decision to try to conciliate the capitalists, trying to convince them to go along with its reforms. Unfortunately we see the same method on the left today - on a much smaller scale for sure, but in essentials governed by the same political drives - in the Socialist Alliance when the SWP attempt to form long-term alliances with non-working class forces.
As the elected government, the UP thought they had the power - the armed forces. That is why they did not arm the workers. They learned that when it came to it, the capitalists, not parliamentary democracy, had the ultimate loyalty of the armed forces. The working class of Chile paid for Allende's weakness, confusion and vacillation with many tens of thousands of proletarian lives.
Workers' control in Chile
This is an account of the origins of the industrial cordons - committee for workers' control - was written shortly after the coup by a Socialist Party activist who lived and worked in Maip-Cerrillos, an industrial zone in Santiago, where one of the first cordons was set up.
The cordon emerged in part from the question of workers' participation. The UP programme provided for this, but only on a limited basis, and mainly in nationalised enterprises. The government intervenor would set up an Administrative Council, with his own nominees in a majority over the workers' representatives. The workers themselves had little influence. Pretty soon a reaction set in, with comrades on the shop floor saying: "It's time we mad the important decisions. The UP is a workers' government. We're the ones who put them in power and argued for nationalisation." So the workers proposed a different scheme, in which they themselves would make the decisions.
The first instance of this was in the PERLAK detergent factory. The workers felt that nothing had changed with its nationalisation. So they called an assembly and simply dismissed the Administrative Council, or rather voted themselves the right to have an elective majority on it. What they said was: "Right, we're the ones to decide what policies this factory follows. From now on we'll deal with personnel. Full details of the balance sheet must be disclosed to all employees. We're also going to deal with production planning and distribution. We want to know who buys our products, because we want to work for everyone, not just for the wealthy.
When this sort of workers' control was established a new political awareness developed. The technical problems weren't neglected, but what came first were political aspects of the workers' participation. Activists like myself believed that as workers we should be our own bosses - that there must be a real change in the relationships of production. Factories should really belong to the workers - belong not in the bourgeois sense of being their private property, but in the revolutionary sense of belonging to a workers' state in which the workers made decisions. Only this would counter the bourgeois offensive which was developing from the outset.
In my experience this didn't prejudice production, as the Communist Party argued. In fact concerns under workers' control achieved the most success economically, as well as in a political sense. There was no conflict between the two. The workers worked and produced as before, the difference being that they now decided was they were going to produce, and also on its distribution. For instance, when meetings were held in work hours, the lost production was made up later with overtime or weekend work. The workers themselves enforced these rules, which meant a basic change of awareness.