Soldiers under Pinochet brun Marxist literature following the coup. Photo: Public Domain
Soldiers under Pinochet brun Marxist literature following the coup. Photo: Public Domain

Oisin Duncan, Socialist Party North West Organiser

The fiftieth anniversary of the 1973 coup in Chile has generated a lot of discussion about the revolutionary events which preceded it. Salvador Allende, elected President leading the Popular Unity coalition in 1970, introduced reforms and socialist measures such as nationalisations. But the Allende government left the armed forces and other state forces in the hands of the bosses. Ultimately he was removed and murdered in a bloody coup. The harsh lessons demonstrated in Chile in the 1970s are vital for revolutionary socialists to learn for the next era of struggle.

Take for instance the personal experiences author Tony Saunois, CWI secretary, recounts in the foreword of the book, visiting to build the forces of the CWI under the military dictatorship which followed the coup. Through his account, we can bear witness to the brutality of the dictatorship, and also to the bottomless ingenuity of the Chilean working class in response.

Additionally, and with interest to Marxists in Britain, coup leader General Pinochet’s friendship with former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher reflects the international scope of events in Chile; the role of the US is perhaps more well-known, but the role of British imperialism is subject to far less discussion (another great reason to buy this book!).

Moreover, the Chilean ruling class pushed a political narrative, aided by some cultural similarities to Britain (it was even nicknamed ‘the England of Latin America’), to cover up some of the massacres which took place under so-called ‘democratic’ governments (for example, the Puerto Montt massacre of 1968).

Similarly, the ruling class in Britain has covered up several violent episodes of repression during the 1984-85 miners’ strike, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and more.

The parallels with Britain continue with the retelling of union leader Jack Jones’ contribution to Labour Party Conference in 1973, after the coup, when Jones correctly warned that a government led by Labour left winger Tony Benn in Britain would meet the same fate as Allende’s. There were other international links; Fidel Castro had gone on an official state visit to Santiago and gifted Allende an assault rifle. While the imagery of this exchange may appear obvious, Castro also urged the government not to go too far too quickly, lest they provoke the reaction of US imperialism. This was bad advice.

There was nothing special about the ‘democratic traditions’ or ‘constitutional armed forces’ in Chile; the ruling class would use whatever means at its disposal to drown the revolution in blood. By urging caution, Castro contributed to the false notion that leaving the officer corps untouched was correct, when in fact it contributed to the downfall of the revolution.

So, having understood that a democratically elected government was overthrown in a violent coup in Chile in 1973, should socialists conclude that elections have no role in our activity? Again, the experience of the Popular Unity platform provides valuable lessons for us today; the Communist Party and the Socialist Party it included had made very serious mistakes previously in the electoral field, which had actually led to Communist Party members being imprisoned in concentration camps. The correct lesson drawn from this was that cooperation with workers’ organisations was the way forward, not accommodation with the bosses.

Even without the high membership of those parties at that time, socialists must still meet the working class where its political consciousness lies. At this point, there is a glaring absence of mass parties standing in elections who would even touch Popular Unity’s programme under Allende, so we have to build them!

Mass working class parties

The need for mass democratic working-class parties is borne out by the degeneration of the current Boric government in Chile, elected initially as the voice, albeit self-appointed, of the mass movement in 2019 against the Piñera government and the holdover constitution from the dictatorship. Having been elected, Boric almost immediately accepted establishment politicians and even IMF economists into his cabinet, a complete betrayal of his supporters. Frustratingly, this example is reflected in many countries in Latin America and other regions, and underlines the need for revolutionaries to seriously take up the electoral question.

This is where some of the supplemental material in the book becomes incredibly useful; Appendix III, a reprint of the pamphlet the CWI produced just after the 2019 mass movements in Chile, Ecuador and other countries, skilfully explains the role of calling for a constituent assembly in the midst of such a struggle, but also the pitfalls of going along with any ploy by the bosses’ representatives in using that demand to demotivate the masses.

Appendices I and II are more article reprints, this time all the way from the 1970s and 1980s respectively, detailing what our comrades were writing at the time of the revolution itself, and under the heavy repression which the counter-revolution wrought on Chilean workers and youth. It shows that we are not just armchair Marxists; although we did correctly predict a coup was likely in 1973, it was an attempt to warn the most militant layers of the class in order to avoid this disaster. Later, as we were building up forces and eventually our sister party Socialismo Revolucionario, we found success discussing with established activists in the underground anti-Pinochet movement, and discussing with them the need not just to overthrow the dictatorship, but capitalism as well.

Ultimately, after reading this book, I felt incredibly proud to be a member of an international which put forward a revolutionary alternative to the dictatorship, not just an accommodation with capitalism. However, the more important part of this book is the analysis of the ideas of Popular Unity, including its errors and lessons for today. If we want to fight for a socialist revolution in this period, then we will have to avoid the same path of Allende’s government, understand fully the role that the state will play while controlled by the bosses, and the need to challenge that control in order to build a socialist society.