International Events 1970 – 74

Chapter Six


1972 saw a massive escalation in the conflict in Northern Ireland. At that time it was not at all easy or ‘popular’, in Northern Ireland or Britain, to point out the facts of the situation in Northern Ireland, even to the most advanced workers.

On Sunday 30 January, at the height of the miners’ strike, 13 unarmed demonstrators were shot down in Derry. Our headline was: “Derry – this was murder”. We said that the day would “go down in history as the North of Ireland’s Bloody Sunday.” This edition came out when a rally of striking miners took place in Trafalgar Square. 

Many miners reacted – and not at all positively – to the brutal facts outlined in the pages of Militant. We said that this event was “to be compared to the Croke Park massacre of 1920 when ‘black and tans’ (the paramilitary police auxiliaries) shot down 12 civilians.” (1) We carried eyewitness reports. Brian Docherty, a Militant supporter, wrote:

I was in Chamberlain Street when the Paras attacked. The crowd retreated in panic and I ran into the courtyard at the back of Rossville flats, but I stopped when I saw that we had been outflanked by soldiers, who had taken up positions at the corner of the flats… Suddenly I realised that it was gunfire. 

I dived behind a wall. I looked up and saw a para who fired his rifle and hit a youth who was only 12 feet away from me. Someone shouted out at me: “Look, he’s been wounded,” and we rushed over and carried him to the other side of the block and he was taken to hospital. The man was unarmed and he was shot down by a British soldier as he ran for cover. (2)

Paul Jones, another Militant supporter, wrote:

William McKinney, aged 27, was shot dead by troops. When Mrs Collins went to help him, she was told to leave him alone by a paratrooper. When she persisted, she was hit on the head with a rifle. Later, when she was able to reach the boy, along with the ‘Knights of Malta’ and McKinney’s mate, McKinney was dead. 

Mrs Collins says that she neither saw nor heard either nail bombs or shooting before the Paras opened up… James Rea, say the residents of the maisonettes opposite Rossville flats, was sheltering for cover, already wounded in the arm, when paratroopers approached him. “Don’t shoot. I haven’t a gun,” he shouted. The paratroopers then demanded that he surrender, which he did, and then he was shot dead.

We said

the responsibility lies not just with the paratroopers, who are candidates for the role of the Praetorian Guard of British imperialism, but the Tory government, finance capital which backs them and the system they represent.

 The terrible bloodletting in Northern Ireland is the legacy of centuries of domination by the British ruling classes. Their rule has traditionally been one of blood and iron. This massacre is just the latest in a chapter of horrors so far as the Irish people are concerned. (3)

Representing Militant, I had been in ‘Free Derry’ at the invitation of local socialists only a week before this incident. Then it was still possible to find, at least in Derry, enthusiastic support for the ideas of a non-sectarian, class alternative. But in the aftermath of these events, Militant reported:

The outraged Catholic youths have flooded towards the Provisional and Official IRA… There will now be a new influx of Catholic youth into the IRA… the rage of the Catholic population is entirely understandable. They feel like striking back, with arms, against those responsible for this massacre. 

But to propose a new campaign of terror and reprisals is no way to avenge the dead and will only reproduce the bloody events in Derry on a larger scale later. The British ruling class can be made to pay for these events only if a strategy for an attack on the whole capitalist system is worked out by the leaderships of these organisations. 

A campaign of individual assassinations of British soldiers can only provide an excuse for further repression. Also, it can only reinforce the hostility of the ordinary soldier to the Catholic population. (4)

What about the troops?

With regard to the use of British troops, we stated:

 “There is no way to bring about the withdrawal of British troops and British imperialist domination except on a class basis.” (5) 

A report (based on my visit before Bloody Sunday) pointed out: “One thing is absolutely certain; the British army… has welded practically the whole Catholic population against them by their methods.” I saw at first hand the methods used by the British army in searching a street:

The tactic is to tear up floorboards, rip down ceilings and wallpaper and wreck furniture. This is done in 98 out of a street of, say, 100 houses. In two houses, the troops will take care to avoid doing any damage and these householders will then be asked to sign dockets to say that no damage has been done. (6)

The level of repression was intense:

At the rate at which the army is going, over half the Catholic male population will be ‘lifted’. And not just the supporters of the Official or the Provisional IRA are subject to this treatment… The sellers of Militant or any labour movement paper can be picked up for interrogation. (7)

Following the events of Bloody Sunday, the whole of Ireland was convulsed by protests. A general strike broke out in the South which paralysed the country. The fate of Irish capitalism itself seemed to hang by a thread; the mass of the Irish population were blaming the Irish government for doing nothing to protect their counterparts in the North.

The rage against the British government and British imperialism, who they clearly held responsible for the massacre in the North, culminated in a mass march on the British embassy in Dublin. The Irish government and police were compelled to stand back impotently as the crowd burnt the embassy to the ground.

Because there was no lead from the tops of the workers’ organisations, either in the South or the North, this movement inevitably subsided. But the events of Bloody Sunday further deepened the morass which British imperialism found itself in over Northern Ireland. Its campaign of repression acted as a recruiting sergeant for the IRA. Militant representatives were to visit Northern Ireland as well as Southern Ireland consistently during the early 1970s.

Military coup in Chile

Events in Chile also featured heavily in Militant between the Allende government’s election in 1970 and General Pinochet’s coup of September 1973. In 1972 the paper warned that this would be

“a decisive year for the Chilean workers and peasants. 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 Popular Front (UP) government, by pressing forward to socialist revolution, or will the reaction strike with ferocious vengeance on an even more terrible scale than General Banzer’s coup in Bolivia in August 1971?” (8)

Cartoon by Alan Hardman

These proved to be prophetic words. Militant warned against the vacillation and dangerously irresponsible reformist illusions of Allende, the ‘Marxist’ president. He had held the masses back:

with phrases warning against ‘provoking reaction’ and thinks he can ‘neutralise’ the generals – the faithful servants of the capitalists, by flattering them and praising their ‘Chilean respect for democracy’. (9)

Despite the claims that Chile was the ‘England of Latin America’, the Chilean army had organised no less than nine coups since 1920.

Allende was only allowed to take office after promising, in a little publicised document, that the armed forces would remain untouched by his government. This was a guarantee that the reactionary officer caste would retain its reactionary grip. It would be ready to strike at the most appropriate moment. Militant pointed out that throughout 1971,

reaction has been paralysed by the overwhelming enthusiasm of the masses for Allende’s government. The CIA has been stumped also. Direct intervention in Chile by US imperialism will provoke an explosion amongst American labour and youth… (10)

Militant stated bluntly:

Only a bold revolutionary programme can guarantee a peaceful transition: 

1. Peasant committees should be set up to take over the land… A decree on land nationalisation would legalise the accomplished revolutionary fact. 

2. Workers’ control of industry… to prevent factory closures. Industry should be nationalised with minimum compensation on the basis of need only. 

3. Action committees… should be set up by the trade unions to force landlords and traders to reduce prices and rents. 

4. A workers’ militia, based on the unions, should be set up to defend the workers’ gains… 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. (11)

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.” This was only to encourage the reaction and to increase the impatience of those on the left. In the concrete situation, Militant stated:

Marx explained that the boss-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. This is the only road for the Chilean workers and peasants. (12)

A few months later, we warned: ‘Generals poised’. The article detailed the attempts at reaction – the shopkeepers’ strike in September and the lorry owners’ stoppage and lockout throughout Chile in October to undermine the Popular Unity government. These measures were testing the ground for the time when the generals could step forward:

They are being groomed by the capitalists and landlords as the ‘arbiters’ of the ‘nation’. After a sufficient period of ‘anarchy’ the generals will be able to step forward as the ‘saviours’ of the country. (13)

The Middle Classes could be won

The other side of the process was also highlighted: “But the reactionaries still live in mortal dread of the Chilean workers.” In relation to the protests of the middle class, we stated that

only the working class, fighting on a clear socialist programme, can really defend the interests of the small proprietors… It would be possible to 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 that this path would lead to a better standard of life for them. (14)

A clear warning was given:

In Chile, disaster looms! Time is short! It is an open question whether the elections scheduled for February 1973 will take place or whether the bosses will move before then.

Militant called for the Chilean workers to

Break the coalition with the capitalist parties! Socialists, demand the arming of the workers against the fascist commandos! Appeal to the troops! Link the workers’ organisations on a programme of taking power! (15)

At this time, the Labour Party Young Socialists sent a letter to their Chilean counterparts, the youth of the Socialist Party of Chile, which found a ready response. In the issue of 15 December Militant stated that: “Even Allende pointed out that the country was ‘on the brink of civil war’.” The denouement was not to come for almost nine months, but it came on 11 September 1973, with terrible consequences for the Chilean workers.

Pinochet’s Coup

All of the warnings about a threatened military coup seemed to be borne out. In August Militant pointed out that a national stoppage had been organised by the lorry owners’ association, openly backed by internal counter-revolutionary forces linking up with the CIA. The July crisis had been “‘resolved’ by bringing three military commanders into the UP (Popular Unity) government. The UP government ended up granting all the lorry owners’ main demands.” (16)

The counter-revolution had attempted a coup, prematurely in June. The reason why the coup had failed was because “if so far the Chilean army has held back, the explanation is to be sought not in any peculiar national tradition, but in the formidable strength now acquired by the labour movement.” In effect, the ground had not been fully prepared for open reaction and “loyal army units” had rallied to the side of the government.

At the same time, we pointed out that, “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.” If only this kind of approach had been adopted when the fatal blow was to strike in September.

Allende had

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 respect, 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.

It was quite clear that “there is no shortage of courage, or willingness to fight. What is lacking is leadership.” (17)

Reports were carried showing that the armed forces had disarmed workers and were conducting vicious and rigorous searches for arms in factories and workers’ districts. “Naval officers have taken harsh action against the sailors who had been affected by revolutionary propaganda, conducting searches among them.”

In effect, the officer caste in Valparaiso had arrested and were torturing those soldiers and naval ratings who were warning of a coup and urging Allende to arm the working class. Militant demanded that “the workers’ organisations need to be armed in defence against the fascists.” Militant appealed to the

left wing, especially the Socialist youth (who) must 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, to be linked locally, in the districts and nationally together with all workers’ organisations to provide the necessary invincible framework for pushing forward the revolution and defeating the counter-revolutionary plots of reaction. Arm the workers! Expel the capitalist ministers, civilian and military, from the UP government. For a socialist Chile! (18)

Above all, warned Militant “the capitalist class is preparing for civil war.” The tragedy was that these words were written in a British newspaper without full access to the genuine forces of Marxism in Chile. The latter did not have a clear understanding or perspectives of how to change the situation. There were undoubtedly many heroic rank-and-file members of the Socialist and Communist Parties who were prepared to fight. There was a significant section of the youth in the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR) who were armed. But there were no serious attempts to set up broad-based genuine workers’ defence organisations. The lack of such organisations, flowing from the false policies of Socialist and Communist leaders, resulted in a catastrophe for the Chilean workers.

Two months later, after Pinochet launched his military coup, Militant reported, “Thousands of workers have died defending their occupied factories, or defiantly facing military assassination squads.” We stated:

If socialism itself is not a sentimental dream, then there is only one conclusion: the leadership and programme of the workers’ organisations was false. And that is our conviction. The workers were led like lambs to the slaughter by the utterly false programme of their leaders. (19)

Only a few days before the coup, on Sunday 9 September, over a million workers had marched passed Allende on the balcony of the presidential palace in Santiago, the majority demanding arms. The workers tried heroically to defend the gains of 1970-73. However the tactics deployed were not those that could guarantee victory.