The Socialist 16 October 2004 |
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The Lessons Of Chile 1970-73
IN THE second of our articles celebrating 40 years of the Militant
newspaper (now the socialist), Roger Shrives looks at how we reported and
commented on the tumultuous events of Salvador Allende's government in Chile
from 1970 until the vicious coup by the reactionary general Pinochet in 1973.
IN SEPTEMBER 1970, Salvador Allende was elected President of Chile. His
Popular Unity (UP) government - made up of large workers' parties (Socialists,
Communists) and smaller middle-class parties - defeated the conservative
Christian Democrats (CDs).
Hopes were raised of a 'parliamentary road to socialism', tackling
capitalism through peaceful, constitutional means. Three years later, these
dreams lay in ashes. Militant reported in the issue of 14 September 1973:
"After three turbulent years of social crisis and economic chaos, the Popular
Unity government ... has been snuffed out under the iron heel of the military.
"All the hopes, all the sacrifices of the Chilean workers and poor peasants
during this period, have come to nothing. The armed forces have seized power
in Chile by a military coup. The capitalists have used their military power to
destroy the reforms instituted by the 'Popular Unity' government."
These reforms included efforts to raise the living standards of the
poorest, to ensure full employment to the workers and land to the peasants.
Why were the Chilean people's hopes dashed?
For three years, articles in Militant explained how, even in a country
known as the "England of Latin America", the ruling capitalist class would not
take such attacks on their privileges lightly. Since 1920, Chile's
'constitutional' army had organised nine coups!
In February 1972 we warned: "Chilean society teeters on the brink of
crisis. The question is posed: will the workers and peasants succeed in
guaranteeing the gains of Allende's government, by pressing forward to
socialist revolution, or will the reaction strike with ferocious
The Allende government nationalised the huge US-owned copper industry with
little compensation to the owners. However large parts of the economy were
left untouched, so were the judicial system, the media and vitally, the armed
Allende was allowed to take office only if the UP promised to leave the
armed forces as they were, with the officer caste left in control and all the
privileges of the army tops left intact. Rank and file members of the armed
forces were even forbidden the right to join a trade union and freedom of
CHILE'S RULING class did not move to crush Allende early in his rule. Both
they and US imperialism feared an explosive reaction from workers and youth
both in Chile and in the rest of Latin America and even in a USA traumatised
But Allende held the masses back from defending their revolution with
phrases warning against 'provoking reaction'. "Allende thinks", said Militant
in February 1972, that "he can 'neutralise' the generals - the faithful
servants of the capitalists, by flattering them and praising their 'Chilean
respect for democracy'."
Militant stressed that a peaceful transition could only be guaranteed by "a
bold revolutionary programme" including setting up "peasant committees to take
over the land... A decree on land nationalisation would legalise the
accomplished revolutionary fact.
"Workers' control of industry... to prevent factory closures. Industry
should be nationalised with minimum compensation on the basis of need. Action
committees... should be set up by the trade unions to force landlords and
traders to reduce prices and rents."
Finally, we wrote "A workers' militia, based on the unions, should be set
up to defend the workers' gains... Allende should appeal to the army rank and
file - the workers in uniform - to set up soldiers' committees. Faced with a
powerful movement in the army, the generals would be suspended in mid-air."
Militant explained how Chile's ruling class "could not be overwhelmed by
using its own state", that "It was necessary to raise the workers'
organisations, most developed in the form of Soviets (workers' and peasants'
committees) to state power, completely paralysing and dismantling the old
state in the process."
The ruling class used their economic control to sabotage the economy and
build opposition amongst small businesses such as the private lorry owners.
Then, Militant said: "after a sufficient period of 'anarchy' the generals will
be able to step forward as the 'saviours' of the country".
We argued that "only the working class, fighting on a clear socialist
programme, can really defend the interests of the small proprietors... grant
cheap credit to the small farmers, the shopkeepers... to develop their
businesses until voluntarily they would agree to form co-operative
enterprises, eventually merging with state industry when they could see this
path would lead to a better standard of life for them."
BY JUNE 1973 the armed forces were disarming workers, searching for arms in
the workers' districts and factories and taking action against sailors
affected by revolutionary propaganda. That month the counter-revolution
attempted a premature coup.
Militant reported: "The Chilean bosses and their blood-brothers in the army
general staff understand fully that premature attempts at a coup would,
without doubt, provoke a mass uprising which would endanger the whole
As an article in The Guardian said "If so far the Chilean army has held
back, the explanation is... not any peculiar national tradition, but the
formidable strength now acquired by the labour movement".
Militant commented: "This is the explanation for the abject failure of the
coup attempt... on 29 June. It was suppressed by 'loyal units' of the army
within two and a half hours - just in time. For as news of the coup spread,
thousands of workers struck, occupied their factories and, leaving armed
pickets on the gates, marched on the Presidential Palace.
"Here was a movement which could have put an end once and for all to the
threat of reactionary tyranny. But Allende appealed for a return to work and
riot police were sent in to break up the milling crowds. Only this cowardice,
this treachery, this total lack of perspective, enabled the bosses to gasp for
breath once more.
"Only the blocking of the movement of the masses as a result of this
betrayal emboldened the road hauliers enough to raise their heads in defiance
of the UP!
"Even then, the magnificent Chilean workers called a 24-hour general strike
on 9 August to ... support the UP against the "road hauliers' blackmail".
There is no shortage of courage or willingness to fight. What is lacking is
Militant finished this article with an appeal to the "left wing, especially
the Socialist youth" to "fight for committees of action for the defence of the
rights of the workers and the defence of the revolution to be set up in every
factory, workers' district, armed forces."
These forces, we said, should "be linked locally, in the districts and
nationally together with all workers' organisations to provide the necessary
framework for pushing forward the revolution and defeating the
counter-revolutionary plots of reaction."
We ended by demanding: "Arm the workers! Expel the capitalist ministers,
civilian and military, from the UP government. For a socialist Chile!"
However the UP leaders' response to this coup threat was to bring three
military chiefs and the commander of the Federal Police into the Cabinet. Just
weeks later, the generals and commanders were using their state forces to
crush Allende's government and end the reforms.
On 9 September 1973, just two days before the coup, half a million workers
marched past Allende on the balcony of the presidential palace - most of them
were demanding arms to defend the gains of 1970-73.
But tragically, as Militant said after the coup, Allende and his government
"failed to organise workers' councils of action and to arm the workers and
appeal to the rank and file soldiers, sailors and airmen to set up
committees." They gave "support to the reactionary officers, Generals and
Admirals of the armed forces.
"Allende sowed illusions in the 'neutrality' of the army caste and the
acceptance by the capitalists of the Chilean constitution. This was the fatal
error of policy for which the workers and peasants of Chile are paying in
blood and suffering."
The coup led by General Pinochet saved capitalism in Chile by plunging the
workers, peasantry and middle class into 17 years of dictatorship, murdering
at least 5,000 political opponents and torturing hundreds of thousands more.
Future generations of working-class revolutionaries must learn the lessons of