30 years after the 11 September military coup: The Lessons Of Chile

ON 11 September 1973 the left wing Popular Unity government of Chile was overthrown by general Augusto Pinochet in a bloody military coup in which president Salvador Allende and thousands of Chilean workers were killed.
Thousands more were tortured by the regime and one million people out of a population of just ten million fled into exile.
As John Reid explains, learning the lessons of this historical defeat is vital for socialists to avoid such a catastrophe recurring.

SALVADOR ALLENDE was narrowly elected President of Chile on 4 September 1970, receiving 36.3% of the vote.

He defeated the conservative Christian Democrat government which had been discredited in the eyes of workers and peasants by its failure to implement social reforms.

Troops had been used against workers and peasants who had moved into action in an attempt to realise their demands. The radicalised workers and peasants elected a Popular Unity (UP) government, made up of Socialists, Communists and smaller middle class parties.

They hoped capitalism could be eradicated by peaceful constitutional means, a parliamentary road to socialism.


THE UP government introduced free school meals and milk within weeks of the election, wages were increased and the living standards of the poorest in society were raised by 20%.

Near full employment was achieved in the three years of this government.

Land occupations by peasant groups speeded up land reforms. Nine million acres of land was distributed to the poor peasants.

These reforms increased the popularity of the government whose share of the vote went up to 51% in the mayoral elections in May 1971.

Workers and peasants pressed for further reforms. In many cases workers occupied factories and peasants took over the land of the big landowners.

Despite measures to curb these movements by the government and the CUT (Chile’s TUC) who told workers not to occupy the factories for fear of provoking reaction, the attitude of workers hardened.

In a brilliant scene from Patricio Guzman’s documentary film The battle of Chile, filmed between 1970 and 1973, a worker answers a CUT official saying: “The plants do not belong to Switzerland or Queen Elizabeth of England but to the workers, we should stand up to the rightists and nationalise the plants”

US outrage

The Chilean capitalists and American imperialism were appalled at the election victory. The American ambassador cabled Washington: “Chile voted calmly to have a Marxist-Leninist state, the first nation in the world to make this choice freely and knowingly.” America feared another Cuba on its doorstep and feared the end of capitalism in Chile.

The huge US-owned copper industry was nationalised with little compensation paid to the capitalist owners. Other large industries too were nationalised or partially nationalised.

But large areas of the economy were left untouched as was the judiciary, media, education and, most importantly, the armed forces.

The UP promised not to curtail the powers and privileges of the armed forces, nor the rule of the officer caste. The armed forces were regarded by UP leaders as constitutionally loyal and neutral, rather than as Karl Marx had explained 100 years earlier, the armed defenders of capitalist property.

Popular Unity even allowed them to carry out joint manoeuvres with the US military. The only area where the US did not employ an embargo of goods into Chile was in military supplies.

Even simple reforms such as a trade union rights for members of the armed forces, the freedom of political association and the free circulation of political material were prohibited.

At first the Chilean ruling class did not move to crush Allende fearing a back lash from workers and peasants who overwhelmingly supported UP. Only the right wing National Party, who had a fascist military wing – ‘Fatherland and Freedom’, wanted to organise a coup before Allende assumed the presidency.

The ruling class bided its time and used the press, television and judiciary to stir up unrest. The US spy agency, the CIA, financed reactionary forces to destabilise the economy.

Henry Kissinger, US secretary of state in the Nixon administration, cabled the local CIA chief: “It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup.” Nixon’s orders were “to make the economy scream”.

Following the 1970 election new investment and loans to Chile were stopped by the US. There was a flight of capital engineered by the US which caused economic instability.

Reaction gathers pace

THE bosses went on the offensive in August 1972 by organising a national business strike. But this angered the workers and peasants and made them even more militant.

The government called a demonstration to celebrate two years of power and one million people, 10% of the population, marched in the biggest demonstration in Chilean history.

Sabotage of the economy led to 200% inflation. This particularly affected the middle classes whose savings become worthless.

This insecurity pushed them away from support for UP and towards the side of reaction.

Egged on by the press and financed by the bosses and the CIA, strikes of the middle classes were organised in October 1972. These strikes involved teachers, airline pilots, shop keepers, bank employees, lawyers and most damagingly lorry owners.

This action crippled the economy and led to huge shortages. The price of copper, Chile’s largest export, fell by 33% on the world market, which cost Chile $200 million in 1971 prices.

All over Chile Los Cordones Industriales (elected workers’ co-ordinating committees) were set up. The cordones demanded the nationalisation of big firms, workers’ control over all production in all industries, farming and the mines through delegate councils.

They also agreed that all delegates should be recallable and that a popular assembly be established to replace Parliament. Workers also demanded arms to defend themselves against the growing reaction.

In the shanty towns ‘people’s supply committees’, JAP’s, were set up to ensure food distribution, to deal with the shortages caused by the boss’s strikes.

They organised food distribution to 300,000 families, half the population of the capital, Santiago. These organisations were embryonic soviets or workers’ councils; they had a revolutionary outlook but lacked a revolutionary party that would have been able to lead the working class to seize power.

A situation of ‘dual power’ existed in Chile where the workers had large elements of power and control but the capitalist class still controlled the levers of state power.

Popular Unity had a choice; either they lean on these workers’ organisations and end the rule of capital or eventually, as we warned at the time, the ruling class would move to overthrow Allende’s government.

Popular Unity argued that the workers were moving “too fast”, and in an attempt to placate big business, troops and police were used to break occupations of factories, arms were seized from workers who had acquired them to defend themselves from armed fascist gangs.

Of course many of these attacks on workers were initiated by army and police chiefs.

Coup d’Etat

THE CAPITALIST class hoped the Congressional elections in March 1973 would act as a ‘white coup’ to bring down the government. If the bosses’ parties received 66% of the vote they could have constitutionally removed Allende.

But despite of the chaos in the economy UP still received 44% of the vote. Reaction now accelerated.

The fascist ‘Fatherland and Liberty’ thugs now began to assassinate workers’ leaders and trade unionists.

In June 1973 a pre-emptive coup organised by a small section of the military was quashed by armed forces led by general Pratts (who was assassinated by the military after the coup) and backed by general Pinochet.

Allende should have moved decisively to mobilise an armed movement of the workers to end the rule of capital. Instead, three members of the military were brought into the cabinet including Pinochet! One month before the coup the Communist Party praised the “professionalism and neutrality of the armed forces”.

This was not the view of the rank and file of the army and navy some of whom warned the UP about preparations for a new coup. Many of these sailors and soldiers were disciplined by their officers for taking this action; hundreds were killed after the coup.

Allende backed the officers believing the soldiers or sailors were scaremongering and slandering the loyal heads of the armed forces.

On the third anniversary of the election of Popular Unity, 800,000 workers marched through Santiago chanting, “Allende, Allende, the people will defend you”.

In vain they also demanded arms to defend the government.

The right wing were terrified by this show of strength, and even given Allende’s failure to move decisively, feared that the workers would independently seize control of society.

A week later on 11 September 1973, they struck. The Presidential palace was bombed by British supplied jets and Allende decided to die in the palace rather than seek refuge in a friendly embassy.

Stages theory

TRAGICALLY, THE policies of Popular Unity disarmed the working class, politically. Firstly, the right wing of the Socialist Party and the Communist Party believed in a gradual and ‘reformist’ road to socialism, ie first of all there would be a capitalist ‘democratic revolution’ that would develop local industry by protecting it from imperialist control and end the semi-feudal ownership of land etc.

Only at an unspecified later stage there would be a transition to socialism.

In contrast the forerunners of the Socialist Party argued, at the time, that the experience of the Russian revolution of 1917 had shown the democratic revolution in a colonial or neo-colonial country can only be completed by the working class in the course of making its own socialist revolution – this, in essence, is Trotsky’s theory of the ‘permanent revolution’.

If the Bolshevik-led revolution had not removed the Kerensky government then reaction in the form of a military coup would have succeded.

Secondly, they believed the state was neutral; that the working class could achieve a degree of state power through an electoral path and could use this path to gradually transform society.

That the existing state machine could be used to gradually end capitalism flew in the face of Marxism. The defeat of the workers’ Paris Commune in 1871, proved that the workers cannot readily lay hold of the capitalist state machinery and wield it for its own class interests.

On the contrary, it must be destroyed and replaced with a democratic workers’ state.

Vitally important lesson

This lesson is vitally important in relation to the role of the armed forces. A relatively peaceful socialist revolution is possible but only if the reactionary officer caste is removed.

UP leaders should have clearly explained this task and taken practical steps to carry this through.

Policies should have been put in place to split the armed forces along class lines. Armed workers’ militias should have been set up to defend the gains of the workers and peasants.

Popular Unity was overthrown because there existed a threat that the working class would make a socialist revolution in spite of the restraining policies and holding back of the revolution by both the right wing in the Socialist Party (of which Allende was a member) and by the Communist Party in the government.

Reaction succeeded ultimately because Allende failed to deal a decisive blow against capitalism at a time when he had the majority of society behind him.

He had just won 51% in the mayoral elections, workers and peasants supported him as did large sections of rank and file in the armed forces and members of the middle class.

Part of the Christian Democratic Party split away into the Christian Left, calling for the construction of socialism. Even large sections of the Catholic Church supported the Government.

Over 70% of priests saw Christianity and the construction of socialism as compatible.

Finish the job

If UP had finished the job and taken the levers of power out of the hands of the ruling class, nationalised the land and the 270 or so companies which controlled the bulk of the economy, and introduced democratic workers control, management and ownership with a central plan of production, the bosses would have been rendered impotent.

It would have also shone as a beacon to the masses of Latin America and to the workers of the US, who were already radicalised by the huge anti-Vietnam War movements.

The Chilean workers had the combativity to carry out ten revolutions. Tragically, they were left politically disarmed as well as not being armed with weapons to defend themselves.

Although small numbers of socialists and communist activists fought bravely, on the eve of the coup most stayed at home on the advice of their leaders who believed a section of the military would stay loyal and defend the government.

The brutal military dictator Pinochet came to power without a great struggle, but with terrrible and lasting consequences for the working class in Chile and internationally.


Under Pinochet’s dictatorship Chile became a laboratory for ‘neo-liberal’ policies which were used uproot to all the social reforms won under Popular Unity.

Later, these measures of curtailing the welfare state and privatising industry would by adopted by US president Ronald Reagan and by Tory premier, Margaret Thatcher.

Recently, the first general strike in Chile for 17 years took place, called by the CUT, for better benefits and working conditions and against the neo-liberal policies of the ruling coalition government, which has done little to improve the conditions of the working class since the fall of the Pinochet dictatorship.

The 1973 Chile coup serves as a warning to workers everywhere. Without a thoroughgoing socialist programme for the transformation of society the capitalist class will violently resist any attempt to curtail their power.

The caravan of death

BETWEEN 1973 and 1990 General Pinochet’s ‘caravan of death’ regime murdered at least 5,000 political opponents and tortured hundreds of thousands of Chileans.

1,000 of his victims remain unaccounted for.

However, it is unlikely that “the butcher” will ever stand trial for his crimes after a panel of 23 judges voted 15 to eight, two weeks ago, against stripping him of his immunity from prosecution.

He was stripped of his immunity in August 2000 but the Supreme Court in Chile ruled he was suffering from dementia and unfit for trial.

Social Democrat Chilean President, Ricardo Lagos, in order to placate the outrage of Chileans, offered to extend compensation payments to the surviving torture victims.

Previously payments had only been made to the families of those murdered by Pinochet’s regime.

A number of years ago Pinochet was indicted by a Spanish judge who attempted to extradite the general from Britain in 1998 where, as a long time friend and political ally of former Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher, he had undergone a medical operation.

The then Labour Home Secretary, Jack Straw, worried about a negative effect on British business trade with Chile, ignored the protests of thousands of exiled Chileans and their supporters in Britain and, after a 16-month long legal wrangle, he allowed the ex-dictator to return home on ‘health’ grounds.

A warning to the masses

DURING THE period of Allende’s Popular Unity government the socialist’s forerunner – Militant – consistently warned the Chilean masses that the failure to break the economic and political power of the capitalist class would bloodily shipwreck the socialist revolution.

In 1972 Militant stated: “Chile society teeters on the brink of crisis.

“The question is posed: will the workers and peasants succeed in guaranteeing the gains of Allende’s Popular Front (UP) government, by pressing forward to socialist revolution, or will the reaction strike with ferocious vengeance…?” (18/2/1972)

Militant dismissed the reformist illusions Allende placed in the generals and their ‘Chilean respect for democracy’. Instead it called for a “bold revolutionary programme” including the formation of peasant committees, workers’ control of industry, action committees of trade unionists and a workers’ militia.

Above all, “Allende should appeal to the rank and file (of the army) to set up soldiers’ committees. Every effort must be made to draw the workers in uniform closer to their brothers in industry.

“Faced with a powerful movement in the army, the generals would be suspended in mid-air.” (ibid)

Allende’s response to the pressure from the left was: “We must not forget that we are within the framework of a legal bourgeois regime.”

As reaction gathered apace Militant warned that “the capitalist class is preparing for civil war”. And that although “there is no shortage of courage, or willingness to fight.

“What is lacking is leadership.” Militant demanded: “Arm the workers! Expel the capitalist ministers, civilian and military, from the UP government. For a socialist Chile!” (17/8/1973).

Tragically, these words were written in Britain without full access to the most revolutionary forces in Chile. And while on 9 September 1973 over 800,000 workers marched demanding arms to defend the government, the Socialist and Communist leaders ignored their requests resulting in a terrible tragedy just two days later.

Venezuela: A repetition of history?

AT 3AM on Friday 12 April 2002 a military coup removed the left-leaning and populist President Hugo Chavéz from his presidential palace. But 48 hours later tens of thousands of his supporters, drawn mainly from the working-class districts of the capital, Caracas, marched to the Miraflores (the palace), kicked out the bosses’ stooge, Pedro Carmona, and reinstalled Chavéz.

According to the Observer (21 April 2002) the US administration “was not only aware the coup was about to take place but had sanctioned it, presuming it to be destined for success”.

Shadowy figures connected with the White House and with a history of involvement in the 1973 Chile coup, and who were connected to the US-sponsored Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua in the 1980s, were also involved in the Venezuela coup.

Aping Chile’s ruling class of 30 years earlier, reactionary forces in Venezuela’s state machinery and the ‘oligarchy’ (the rich landowning/capitalist class) had been sabotaging the reformist policies of president Hugo Chavéz and whipping up opposition to his “Bolivarian revolution” amongst the middle classes.

Unlike Allende, Chavéz isn’t a socialist nor is there a Venezuelan equivalent of the Popular Unity government. Nonetheless, US imperialism is worried that his mild reforms, which stand in contrast to the austere economic medicine prescribed by the International Monetary Fund to countries in Latin America, could provoke left-wing movements of workers.

But like Allende’s Chile, Chavéz has left the main levers of economic power in the hands of the ruling class and imperialism. Since the abortive coup the capitalist class has organised long shutdowns and lockouts of industry and has mobilised large demos of the middle classes trying to provoke a constitutional crisis to remove Chavéz from power.

So far Chavéz has ridden out the crisis by limited purges of the armed forces chiefs and counter-mobilising the workers and poor. But the political stalemate between the classes in society cannot last indefinitely.

Either the capitalist class or the working class and its allies will triumph.

As the socialist stated on 8 March 2002: “In order to defeat the forces representing the old corrupt order and imperialism, the masses have to take control of society.” Clearly, the lessons of Chile 1973 are as relevant today as at any time during the last 30 years.