Chile 1970: how a self-described Marxist became president

Berkay Kartav, London Socialist Party

On 4 September 1970, the self-proclaimed Marxist Salvador Allende was elected as President of Chile. Allende’s victory came as a shock to the ruling Chilean capitalist class and US imperialism.

This was the first time in Latin America that a coalition comprised predominantly of workers’ parties had come to power following an election.

It unleashed a revolutionary movement which sadly ended with a bloody coup backed by the CIA on 11 September 1973.

There are many lessons to be learned from the three years of Allende’s Chile, but there are also many lessons from the period that preceded his election. How did a self-proclaimed Marxist come to lead a capitalist state?

Even though the 1970 presidential election results might have been a shock for the ruling class, the events leading up to the elections indicated a changed situation. They took place against a backdrop of sharpening class polarisation and radicalisation of the working class and peasantry in Chilean society.

Successive pro-capitalist governments, led by the Christian Democrats and Radical Party, had failed to raise the living standards of the masses and carry out the social reforms they once promised. By the time of the elections, the representatives of big business and US imperialism were split on how to rule and solve the problems of the Chilean economy.

But events like these were not necessarily unique to Chile. There were upheavals in all parts of the world in the late 1960s.

The year 1968 became known as the year of international revolution. The global economic boom which followed World War Two had come to an end, so too the relative political stability of the international order in which the US had emerged as the single dominant capitalist power.

Around the world, revolutionary and semi-revolutionary movements were erupting, threatening the very foundations of the capitalist system.

France ‘68

Between May and June 1968, France was swept by the greatest general strike in history, when 10 million workers went on strike. Factories and universities were occupied, and President Charles de Gaulle even fled, fearing revolution. In the US, there were mass movements for civil rights and against the bloody Vietnam war.

Also in 1968, fearing what even the limited reforms of Alexander Dubcek in Czechoslovakia could unleash, the Stalinist bureaucracy deployed 200,000 ‘Warsaw Pact’ troops to put an end to the ‘Prague Spring’. From Mexico to Pakistan, revolutionary movements that confronted capitalism spread around the world.

This was the international context to the unfolding processes in Chile, which led to the election of Allende and opened the floodgates for the working class. But there were also unique features in Chile.

The origins of Allende’s Popular Unity (UP) coalition went back to 1952, when the two biggest workers’ parties in Chile – the Socialist Party (PSCh) and the then-illegal Communist Party (PCCh) – formed the People’s Front, in response to attacks by the Radical Party. The People’s Front and later Popular Action Front were the forerunners of the UP coalition.

In a country with about 6 million people, the PSCh and PCCh had tens of thousands of members and were growing fast.

Allende, a member of PSCh, was the Presidential candidate of these left coalitions in the 1958, 1964 and 1970 elections. The PSCh was formed in 1933 and declared itself a Marxist party. In effect, it was founded in opposition to the Stalinist policies of the PCCh.

The PCCh had been putting forward a disastrous policy for the working class since the 1930s. In line with Stalinist stageist theory, it argued that Chile first had to go through a capitalist democratic revolution – elimination of feudal relations, introduction of democratic demands and so on – and only then, after a period of capitalist development, a socialist revolution at a later stage. As in other countries, the Stalinists saw the ‘liberal’ capitalists, who are tied to landlordism and imperialism, as a progressive force.

Russian revolution

Analysing the social and economic situation in Russia ahead of the 1917 revolution, Leon Trotsky, co-leader of the revolution alongside Vladimir Lenin, developed the theory of ‘permanent revolution’. He correctly identified that, in a semi-feudal country like Russia with a weak domestic capitalist class, it would fall to the working class to carry out the tasks of the capitalist democratic revolution, and that it would then be compelled to move towards a struggle for power itself and continue with socialist revolution.

The more revolutionary wing of the PSCh, the Popular Socialists, were politically better than the PCCh. At a conference in 1953, the Popular Socialists put forward the following resolution: “In our countries, the bourgeoisie is not a revolutionary class. The revolutionary classes are the industrial workers, the miners, the peasants, the intellectual petit bourgeoisie, the artisans and independent workers, and all those sectors of the population whose interests are in contradiction with the established order. Within this framework the organised working class comes more and more to play the decisive role.”

Even though the politics of the Popular Socialists were confused, they understood that in countries like Chile, only the working class could play a revolutionary role to undertake the historical tasks of the capitalists and overthrow feudalism and landlordism, and the central role of the organised working class in the struggle for socialism.

Allende himself was from the reformist wing of the PSCh. Failing to understand the role of the state and the forces of reaction, the reformists wrongly believed that you can achieve socialism through gradual reforms under capitalism. The events of September 1973, which ended with the brutal murderous coup by General Pinochet, proved how fatal this position would be.

Despite these differences between the two major workers’ parties and also within these parties, the coalition remained intact, in one form or another, throughout the tumultuous period from the 1950s up to the 1973 coup.

But it was the political instability and economic conditions which created the objective conditions for the forces that made up UP to grow and gain an echo among the working class.

After shock presidential election results in 1958, when Allende came second with 28.5% of the votes behind the candidate of the right, Jorge Alessandri, who received 31.6%, the ruling class in Chile wanted to counteract the growing radicalisation of the working class. They were worried that a self-proclaimed Marxist only narrowly lost the elections.


With revolution unfolding in Cuba through the 1950s, US imperialism did not want another revolution in a Latin American country. It poured massive amounts of money into Chile to grant reforms to stave off revolution. By 1958, American investment accounted for 80% of all foreign investment in Chile.

However, it was clear that the ruling Radical Party wasn’t able to take the measures needed to undertake the reforms the US imperialism considered necessary. Christian Democrats (PDC), which had a certain base in society at that time, was the choice of US imperialism, which supported Eduardo Frei in the 1964 presidential elections.

While the PDC defended the capitalist system, it appealed to the ‘marginals’ in society – women, unemployed, peasants, urban dwellers etc – and set up a patronage system. This was a clear attempt to stop UP winning support from wider layers of the society.

The PDC used left rhetoric with slogans such as ‘Revolution in Liberty’ to appeal to the downtrodden layers and middle classes. Frei promised greater state intervention and land reforms, but the Chilean economy became even more dependent on US finance. By 1970, foreign debt had reached enormous proportions.

Frei’s policy of ‘Chileanisation’ in reality meant the US had more stakes in Chilean mines. These mines were later nationalised by Allende.

Moreover, the land reforms the PDC wanted to implement were met with opposition by the landlords and divisions within the party also grew. Sections of the capitalist class were not happy with the ‘radical populism’ of the PDC.

Towards the end of the 1960s it was clear that Frei’s government was not able to fulfil its promises and its base of support started to shrink. While it was initially able to resolve some of the problems in the economy, high inflation and high unemployment were back towards the end of the 1960s.

Splits were deepening between different sections of the capitalist class on how to rule. In particular there was a growing conflict between the industrial capitalists and agrarian capitalists.

Unlike the presidential election in 1964, by 1970 the right-wing alliance broke down and the National Party and the PDC put forward its own candidates for the presidential elections. The PDC’s candidate, Tomic, was on the left of the party.

Towards the late 1960s, Chilean society was polarised on class, political and social lines. While the capitalist class was split on how to rule, the combativity of the working class and peasantry was on the rise. There were important shifts in the middle classes too.

The false promises of Frei, such as greater state intervention and land reforms, never materialised and failed to lift living standards. The disappointment with the PDC was reflected in the 1970 elections when its vote collapsed from 56% in 1964 to 27.8%.

The year Frei came to power there was a total of 564 strikes recorded, but by 1968 this figure had reached 1,124. But it was not only industrial militancy on the rise. There was a growing number of land occupations too.

Class polarisation

The increasing class polarisation was reflected in the fragmentation of the PDC and the PSCh. Frustrated with the lack of steps for land reform, the left of the PDC split away to form MAPU (Popular Unitary Action Movement) in 1969. This force later joined the UP coalition.

There were also debates on the left on the question of tactics. The student wing of the Socialist Party was disillusioned with the reformist wing of the party. It argued that the reformists focused solely on the elections and had illusions in the ‘constitutional loyalty’ of the Chilean army.

Inspired by the guerilla struggles in other parts of Latin America, this student group split away in 1963 and formed the MIR (Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria) in 1965. But despite having good intentions, it failed to grasp the potential power of the working class to overthrow capitalism and offered an incorrect programme and tactics.

Ahead of the 1970 elections, the existing left coalition developed into Popular Unity (UP). While the two biggest parties were still the PSCh and the PCCh, four smaller parties were included, including the pro-capitalist, weakened Radical Party.

Allende was actually on the centre-right of the Socialist Party. Failure of the left to put forward a left candidate in the central committee of the party meant that Allende was elected as the party’s presidential candidate by 12 votes to 13 abstentions.

This was the background to the 1970 elections when Allende won with 36.2%, less than what he got in 1964. His coalition UP had a minority in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate.

Despite the fact that the leaders of the workers’ organisation lagged behind the consciousness of the working class, the next three years unleashed a phenomenal revolutionary movement in Chile.

Backed by the popular support of the working class – significant sections of which were drawing far-reaching conclusions about what tasks were necessary to bring an end to capitalist rule – the Allende government was able to carry out significant reforms.

Ultimately however, the capitalist state – the armed forces, the police and courts and so on – remained intact. The capitalist class used every tool at its disposal to sabotage support for Allende’s reforms, ultimately removing him from power in a military coup in which he was murdered in the presidential palace. In the aftermath, thousands of workers and workers’ leaders were executed.

All the conditions for a successful workers’ revolution existed in Chile. The ruling class was split, the working class was increasingly willing to confront capitalism, and significant sections of the middle class were looking towards the leadership of the working class.

But the most important factor, the subjective factor, was missing: a Marxist revolutionary party, with roots in the working class, that could have taken the movement further with the correct programme, methods and strategy for the socialist transformation of Chile and the rest of the world.

The lessons of Allende’s UP government for socialists today are rich, even 50 years after it came to a bloody end. Central is the need to build a mass revolutionary party with the correct programme and tactics to lead the working class in taking power.