Allende supporters. Photo: Public Domain
Allende supporters. Photo: Public Domain

11 September marks 50 years since the bloody coup which overthrew the socialist Salvador Allende government in Chile. In the weeks and months that followed, tens of thousands of workers’ leaders were coldly executed or disappeared at the hands of the military dictatorship led by General Pinochet.

But the tragedy was not inevitable. Chilean workers and youth had elected a socialist government in 1970 and were demonstrating their willingness to struggle to bring an end to capitalist rule.

The September issue of our sister publication, Socialism Today, has republished an article written on the 30th anniversary: ‘Chile 1973: Heroism was not enough’. It concludes: “…The experience will not have been in vain if revolutionaries learn from the mistakes of the workers’ leaders between 1970 and 1973. The same tasks will again be posed for the Chilean workers, and workers internationally. Lessons must be learnt.”

The Socialist will publish a series of articles, seeking to draw some of the lessons of Chile.

Film review: The Battle of Chile Part one

Oisin Duncan, Socialist Party North West Organiser

The events leading up to and including the Chilean coup on 9 September 1973 were documented on film by Patricio Guzman and other journalists, including Leonardo Henricksen who was actually killed by the army in a premature assault on government buildings in June 1973.

Due to the intensity of the class struggle and tempo of events, part one of the four-part series, fittingly titled ‘the struggle of an unarmed people’, covers only the period between the parliamentary election in March ‘73 and that abortive coup attempt by the No. 2 regiment of the Chilean Army. As Guzman himself claims as narrator, once seeing that Allende’s Unidad Popular (UP) ticket had increased their votes in March, the so-called ‘defenders of freedom’ gradually turned to anti-democratic and increasingly violent means.

For example, immediately after UP’s electoral victory was confirmed, right-wing supporters came out and rioted, having been whipped up to believe this was a fraudulent result. This would not be the last time the ruling class used violence to try and undermine Allende’s legitimacy; the spectre of the September coup, aided and abetted by the CIA and US imperialism more broadly, looms over the entirety of this part of Guzman’s documentary. For revolutionaries in the present day, the eventual outcome of Allende’s government should only encourage us to study these events keenly, rather than dismiss the heroics of the Chilean workers and even the actions of Allende himself, as ‘reformist’, ‘a betrayal’ or other epithets.

In fact, the possibility of eventual defeat was not lost on Allende’s supporters at the time. Guzman conducts many brief interviews with supporters of both UP and the right-wing opposition parties, and one young worker at a UP rally tells him: “We are fighting hard to win a big majority, but we know that this election is not everything. Of course we are trying to win, but when we do that will not solve or avoid the problem of the civil war in Chile. The civil war is inevitable, it is fundamental”.

The foresight demonstrated by that young UP supporter summarises the tragic trend of Allende’s time in power. Time and again, his supporters and the broader working class could see the coming attacks of the capitalist class more clearly than Allende could. After the election, the economic sabotage of the Chilean bosses (assisted by US imperialism) tried to “make the economy scream”, in US President Richard Nixon’s words. To hammer home this lining up of forces within and without Chile against the UP government, one supporter of the right-wing opposition interviewed before the March election launches into a tirade against the “destruction of Chile” by “disgusting Marxist” forces.

The working class

The working class clearly did not let up after sweeping Allende and the UP to a stronger position in parliament. In response to manufactured shortages, UP set up Committees on Provisions and Prices (JAPs), local grassroots networks in working-class areas which were intended to root out speculation, hoarding and other economic crimes. They went beyond this brief and some began to organise food distribution wholesale, issuing ration cards and repossessing hoarded goods.

This process, of the working class stepping ahead of the political limits of their leaders, would continue through 1973 and is a key feature of revolutionary situations. In fact, this is the real shortcoming of the reformist approach taken by Allende and other leaders of the UP coalition; to match the constantly advancing aims of the working class in struggle, it is necessary to link their immediate demands to the general struggle to transform society in a socialist direction.

For an example drawn from outside this part of the documentary, other working-class organisations, the cordones industriales (or ‘industrial belts’) formed to knit together trade union activists, the unemployed and urban poor. During an attempt by the transport bosses’ association to starve the cities by preventing food deliveries, the cordones took on the responsibility for organising alternative transport, defended truck drivers accused of strike-breaking and ultimately broke this attack from the Chilean bourgeoisie.

The actions of the working class often came from their own initiative, encouraged after the fact by Allende, but rarely initiated by him or the parties involved with UP. Allende, his background on the right wing of the Socialist Party of Chile, was attempting to win reforms through parliamentary means. Against a background of intimidation from right-wing opposition parties, including the murder of worker-activist Jose Ahumada, Allende and his supporters were wary of provoking a coup d’etat. Unfortunately for Allende, the coup was going to take place regardless of timing.

The cordones were increasingly beginning to play a role organising aspects of society and, together with the JAPs, forming elements of dual power – where the working class is moving towards taking over the running of society, but capitalist rule and its state machine have not yet been broken. Neither class has full control in running society. Such a situation however cannot continue indefinitely. One class or the other must ultimately take control.

During the 1917 Russian Revolution, soviets played that role – elected bodies of workers and soldiers developing an independent political programme in the interests of the working class and masses. Ultimately the working class took power in Russia through the all-Russia Congress of Soviets and under the political leadership of the Bolshevik party.

Revolutions don’t all follow a soviet ‘blueprint’. Organisations develop organically, and contending political forces determine their programme and action. In Chile, the role of the cordones and the JAPs was not developed on a firm basis, with bodies brought together at a regional and national level. They could have provided an invaluable counterweight to the UP government’s increasingly timid policies.

The final climax of part one of Guzman’s documentary hints that this was the direction in which the working class in Chile was heading.

Mass demonstrations in support of Allende’s government took place, and the masses were demanding weapons to protect their chosen leaders. In Allende’s admirable desire for a peaceful path to socialism, he denied this demand, and in fact tried to appear more left wing at that point, suggesting that more powers would be given to the JAPs and the cordones.

And yet, as the film ends with the image of a Chilean army officer murdering Leonardo Henricksen, the terrible bloodletting during and after the CIA-sponsored coup in September of 1973 occurred despite Allende’s best intentions. He himself would meet a violent end on 11 September as the Air Force he was theoretically in charge of bombed the presidential palace.

Tens of thousands of militant worker-activists were then sealed into their factories and workplaces, before being moved to huge detention centres, like the one in the national football stadium in Santiago, to be tortured, killed, or intimidated so that General Augusto Pinochet’s regime could be consolidated.

That is the price of failing to understand the necessary course for a revolution; in such a heightened form of class struggle, the working class is faced with a stark choice. This is to either throw off the shackles of capitalism, beat back the reaction of the capitalist state and begin to build a new form of society, or to allow the exploiters to reassert control with every violent means of repression at their disposal. That is the reason that we as Marxists have to study events like these in as much detail as possible, to avoid taking the latter option in future class battles. In this sense, The Battle of Chile provides an invaluable resource in observing the real-time dynamics, perspectives and outcomes of the struggle for socialism.

Memories of Allende’s government

During this summer’s Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) event in Berlin, we spoke to Hugo Rodriguez about the struggle against the Pinochet dictatorship which followed the coup, and his activities as a member of the CWI through that period. During those discussions, which will feature in a future article, Hugo explained his memories of the coup and of Allende’s government.

I was nine years old when Allende was first elected. And when the coup happened I was 12. During those three years, one thing that stood out to me overwhelmingly, something that appears very trivial but in the economic situation in Chile was very important, was the promise of a half litre of milk for every child in the country.

When I talk with people who say: “But no, under Allende the lines were so long” and criticise, I say: “Look, I was a child, I didn’t know. All I knew was that every day during the Allende government, we had milk. After the coup, milk disappeared from our house.” Because we were very poor. We were five siblings and my mom. My father had died. So we were in a very precarious situation. This is what I say about Allende. For many people, this was very important.

The other thing I remember was that at the elementary school I attended, there was a dentist. Today, dental care in Chile is super-expensive – one of the worst problems for the working class in Chile. During the Allende government, there was free dental care for children in the public schools.

I remember we had to stand in enormous lines to buy bread, to buy sugar, but even as a kid, I knew this wasn’t a problem caused by the Allende government, but a problem caused by the rich hoarding all of the food.

In this period, there were detatchments of youth, of workers, of women, who were in charge of finding businesses who had their stores and warehouses full of food, but refusing to sell it. The workers would find it, take the bosses out of power, then re-open the business and make sure the food was sold to the people. At prices set by the Supply and Prices Board.

And I remember the day of the coup too. In truth, it was strange. I was in school and it was time for us start class but there were no teachers or staff there. We were 10 or 12 classmates in the courtyard talking and happy because 8am passed, 9am, and there were no teachers, nobody in the school and therefore no class. The older brother of one of our classmates came looking for him and said, “No, there are no classes, let’s go”. And we said “Why not? Why is there no class?” Because there has been a government coup.

I was only 12, I didn’t know what that meant. We took a bus home and I remember that on the side we passed around six tanks, which I had never seen before in my life. It was like in a movie, but right there. I think I arrived home around noon that day. My siblings were home, my mom was home, and after a while, maybe 4pm they placed a curfew so we couldn’t leave, including even just opening the curtains to see what was going on, because the military was passing by.