Politics & Economics

From Allende to Corbyn: lessons in reformism 1970-2020

11 September 2020

On 11 September 1973, the Chilean armed forces, led by General Augusto Pinochet and Admiral José Toribio Merino, launched a coup against President Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government. The coup was one of the great twentieth century tragedies of the international workers’ movement.

Declassified US documents revealed that US President Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, using the CIA and the US military in covert operations, both encouraged and assisted the coup. They tried to prevent Allende even being inaugurated.. When this failed they resorted to a strategy, in Nixon’s own words, to “Make the Economy Scream”. Kissinger, too, is recorded as saying, “we will not let Chile go down the drain”.

The coup established a brutal military-police dictatorship headed by Pinochet. By the end of 1973, 250,000 Chilean civilians had been arrested and detained. 28,000 remained incarcerated for extended periods. Around 5,500 Chileans were killed during the coup and its aftermath. One of the first was Allende himself. The military claimed that he killed himself, but evidence emerged in 2011, that he was murdered by the Chilean military during the storming of the Moneda Palace, the presidential residence. In Chile’s capital, Santiago, 5,000 people were rounded up into the country’s national football stadium in in human conditions. 1,850 of these detainees were killed, amongst them the famous poet and singer-songwriter Victor Jara.

4 November this year will mark fifty years since Allende’s election to the presidency in 1970. Allende was the head of a reforming government which had carried out many popular measures, which had earned him the enmity of both Chilean and international capital, especially that of American imperialism. They were terrified that Chile, “the Britain of Latin America”, which had a long democratic tradition, would set an example to other countries beyond its continent, especially Italy which had just experienced a major social crisis.

Several important lessons can be learned from this defeat. These relate not only to the role of the Chilean right and US imperialism, but also to the catastrophic failures, political and strategic, of Salvador Allende and the Popular Unity (Unidad Popular – UP) leadership. These lessons are especially important given the experiences of the British left in the last five years. While there are obvious enormous differences in the events and the outcomes of the UP government in Chile and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership in the Labour Party, there are enough similarities in both their strategies and their politics to warrant comparison.

Furthermore, though Corbyn’s Labour Party never formed a government, the experience of Chile raises several questions as to what would have happened if it had. Since few of Corbyn’s supporters show the slightest inclination to even question the strategy of parliamentary reformism, its pitfalls should be highlighted. Many of the political errors that led to Corbyn’s defeat at the ballot box were much the same as those that led to Allende’s defeat in the coup. Though the Labour Left’s strategy was not based on the idea of an open coalition with bourgeois parties it did and does assume that the capitalist parties will play a constitutional game, that the forces of business and banking will not try to wreck the economy and, last but far from least, the state forces will remain neutral.

Scarcely a week after Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party, the Sunday Times published a statement by an anonymous “serving general” threatening that the army high command would prevent a Corbyn-led Labour government carrying out measures such as cancelling the renewal of Trident or negotiating to leave Nato. On such questions, according the general, a popular mandate won in a general election would mean nothing. “The Army just wouldn’t stand for it. The general staff would not allow a prime minister to jeopardise the security of this country and I think people would use whatever means possible, fair or foul to prevent that. You can’t put a maverick in charge of a country’s security. There would be mass resignations at all levels and you would face the very real prospect of an event which would effectively be a mutiny.”

The Popular Front

On 4 September 1970 Chile held presidential elections, in which Salvador Allende gained 36.3% of the vote. Popular Unity was an alliance, which included the Socialist Party and the Communist Party and some smaller, bourgeois parties – the Radical Party, the Social Democrats and Independent Popular Action (API) – which were all based mostly upon small capitalists and professionals, and a radical petty bourgeois party, the Movement for Unified Popular Action (MAPU).

The Communist Party had long pursued the Stalinist “stages” strategy, aiming to form a popular or people’s front with the “national” bourgeoisie to defeat the monopolists, the landed oligarchy, and American corporations. The Communist Party, along with Allende, pursued a strategy of attempting to win the support of the Christian Democrats too, one of the main capitalist parties. The Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei had been president from 1964-1970, and because he too had pursued a reformist programme, including poverty reduction programmes and agrarian reform, Popular Unity hoped that they might give critical support in parliament to Allende who fell short of an absolute majority. Popular Unity’s programme, therefore, was moderated to not scare off the Christian Democrats and more generally the imagined “national” bourgeoisie.

This was a classic example of the “Popular Front” strategy, which the Stalinist Communist parties had pursued in the 1930s, most famously in France and Spain, justified by the rise of fascism. Socialist revolution was put on hold and radical working class and peasant demands watered down in pursuit of alliances with the “progressive” bourgeoisie. In Spain, the very presence of the Communists an the Socialists panicked the great majority of the bourgeoisie into supporting Franco’s coup, and the Republican popular front government’s holding back of both the peasants takeover of the land an the workers of the factories, undermined the Republican forces resistance and led to Franco’s eventual victory in the Spanish Civil War. Thirty years later, in Chile, history was doomed to repeat itself.

Allende came to power during a period of intense crisis in Chilean capitalism. Agriculture was dominated by latifundia, large landed estates, in the hands of a rural oligarchy. There were large-scale disturbances as the peasantry fought to seize land. Two American corporations, Anaconda and Kennecott, controlled almost all of Chile’s copper mines. Copper was Chile’s most important commodity. Chile’s growth rate was lower than most other Latin American countries and its national debt per capita was the highest in the world. PU’s programme offered sweeping reforms with the aim of combatting the capitalist crisis and redistributing wealth. It promised to redistribute landed estates, nationalise the American copper mines and use an expanded state sector to promote economic growth and industrial development. However, Allende also wished to retain support of the smaller bourgeois parties and win that of the Christian Democrats, and therefore had no intention of challenging, let alone overturning, capitalism.

The Role of the State

Allende’s approach in power was one of strict conformity to Chile’s constitution. In October 1970 a group of hard-line reactionaries with the backing of the CIA attempted a coup to prevent him from taking office. This included the assassination of the commander in chief of the Chilean army general René Schneider, a defender of a constitutionalist neutrality of the armed forces. This coup failed, however, and the Christian Democrats instead aimed to box Allende in using the institutions of the state. As Allende had not won an outright majority in the election, he needed to be confirmed by Chile’s Congress to become president.

The Christian Democrats demanded that he sign a “Statute of Guarantees”, which included no reduction in the size of the armed forces, no “interference” with the judiciary, schools or the media, and no formation of workers’ or peasants’ militias. This document strengthened the capitalist-dominated legislature against the executive and ensured that the institutions of the capitalist state would remain untouched.

Even the limited reforms Allende would pursue were bound to come up against the resistance of the vested interests of the capitalist class and these interests were strongly represented in the very institutions Allende pledged would remain unmolested. His and Popular Unity’s constitutionalism thus tied their hands in dealing with the Chilean bourgeoisie..

Bound by constitutionality as he was, it was not Allende himself the Chilean bourgeoisie feared. They were far more concerned by the potential radicalism his election would unleash from the working class and peasantry. This was also the case of the ruling class reaction to Corbyn in Britain. The pleas of Corbyn or Allende, that their measures would in fact benefit capitalism missed the point entirely. The concern was that if they gained power and actually enacted reforms to benefit the working class, the working class would expect more, and what bourgeois politicians had always claimed was impossible would be shown to be possible. To prevent this from occurring, a resounding defeat needed to be inflicted, to demonstrate the futility of attempting change.

Legality vs Class War

Allende’s election did indeed lead to an upsurge in working class and peasant confidence, expectations and radicalism. Trade union membership rose, as did membership of the Socialist and Communist parties. The government enacted a number of significant reforms. Wages went up by thirty-five percent and family allowances were increased. The American-owned copper mines were nationalised and land was redistributed. These reforms, however, were limited, as Allende sought to work within the bounds of legality and feared alienating Chile’s bourgeoisie and middle classes. The nationalisation of the copper mines was achieved through buying the companies’ stock. Landowners were similarly compensated and allowed to keep eighty hectares of land as well as buildings, machinery, and animals. The power of the landowners was therefore far from broken. When the peasantry themselves led by the guerrilla Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR), attempted to seize land, Allende and the Socialist and Communist Party leaderships repressed the uprisings.

A key aspect of the government’s economic strategy was state intervention in failed industries. By 1972, twenty percent of production was carried out by the so-called “Social Production Sector”. These measures were often frustrated by the Chilean constitutional and legal apparatus. The Comptroller of the Republic began to rule some attempts at state intervention unconstitutional. The judiciary similarly blocked various measures. Congress repeatedly vetoed legislation. The capitalists also attempted to sabotage the Chilean economy. US imperialism impeded loans and investment. The companies whose mines were nationalised attempted to organise an international boycott of Chilean copper. The Chilean bourgeoisie engaged in hoarding and speculation. All of this, combined with a fall in copper prices, led to a much-weakened economy.

Allende responded to this sabotage by entering negotiations with the Christian Democrats, where he offered even greater concessions to the bourgeoisie. These negotiations failed, but the government continued to moderate its policies in the hopes of enticing them into an alliance. While Popular Unity offered concessions to the capitalists, workers were called upon to make sacrifices and join the “battle for production”. The Chilean workers and peasants, however, responded with an upsurge in radical activity. From June 1972, “cordones industriales” (industrial belts) – committees linking factories in the industrial zones – were formed. One industrial dispute at Perluk canning plant resulted in an occupation with a demand for state intervention.

The government attempted to suppress the takeover and restored the factory to the owners, with the Communist Minister of Labour denouncing the workers. The Communist Party with its greater bureaucratic discipline than the Socialists and and its more rigid stages theory was particularly vigorous in trying to restrain the workers’ struggles. This time, however, the workers resisted, setting up an area committee and blocking roads, forcing the government to concede.

The capitalists’ response to the increased militancy was a “bosses’ strike”. From 9 October 1972, employers attempted to shut down industry and organise a lockout. Workers responded with a wave of occupations. JAP, committees of housewives, requisitioned food supplies, forced shops to reopen and fixed prices. The cordones industriales spread rapidly, mobilising and organising workers, organising for defence, transport and supply. Neighbourhood committees were formed. This assertion of working class power led the bourgeoisie to call for negotiations. The government, however, also feared this new wave of militancy. During the crisis, it had relied on the military to intervene to run provinces. Allende now drew them into his government.

The government’s commitment to constitutionality meant that it allowed the bourgeoisie to use its entrenched power in the legislature and the judiciary to sabotage it and prevent the reforms that the working class demanded. Its refusal to expropriate the bourgeoisie meant that they could use their economic power to sabotage the economy. When the working class attempted to use its own power, the government made every attempt to hold them back or suppress them, for fear of ruining their attempts to form alliances, which were made necessary by their own refusal to engage in direct confrontation.

The self-organisation of the Chilean working class proved that they were willing to take power into their own hands. The revolutionary approach, as opposed to the reformist method of Allende’s government, would have been to lead them in the take over of their workplaces, enact full nationalisation of production under workers’ control and develop a workers plan . At the same time it was vital to create workers defence guards to arm them so that they could resist attacks by repressive forces of the bourgeoisie, win over the rank an file of the armed forces, and thus effectively smash the capitalist state as an instrument of that class standing above and oppressing the working people.

But both Allende, the Socialist Party and the Communist Party leaders, were committed to a limited programme of reforms within the bounds of capitalism, and had no intention of doing this. Thus, when the dynamic of class struggle between capitalists and workers broke out, despite their schemas they held back and hindered the workers in this struggle. In doing so they dug their own graves.

The Military

Allende responded to the bosses’ strike by bringing military leaders into his government. In 1973 He hoped that the military would “preserve” order by defending the government. In reality the military, like the rest of the state apparatus, was loyal to the capitalist system. In January 1973, the government attempted to return 123 occupied enterprises to their owners. Working class resistance, led by the cordones, blocked this plan. This convinced the bourgeoisie that Allende could not control the masses and would make further concessions to pressure from below. They therefore turned to the military.

The military had been using special powers granted it by Allende’s government to conduct “arms raids” on workers’ and left organisations, which increased rapidly in the summer of 1972 he made Augusto Pinochet chief of the general staff, and a month before the coup, commander in chief. In June there was a failed coup attempt by the Second Armed Regiment, put down by loyal soldiers. In early August, a group of sailors who had reported the coup preparations to the government were arrested for mutiny and tortured. Allende refused to support them or call for their release and denounced “ultra left” sailors for organising in the navy. Loyalists in the military were now assured that they would receive no support if they opposed the coup. On 11 September the coup was enacted with US assistance. While there was heroic resistance from the cordones and Socialist, Communist and MIR militants, but the lack of weapons or any overall coordination meant they were easily crushed.

Reform or Revolution

The lessons of 1970-73 are clear. A commitment to alliances with a supposed progressive section of the bourgeoisie and absolute constitutionality, tied the hands of Allende and the Popular Unity government. It did not of course tie the hands of the Chilean bourgeoisie and US imperialism. Worse than that, though, the reformist parties and the trade unions tied the hands of the working class and peasantry in its struggles. If a programme of reforms threatens the economic and political power of capital, particularly if those reforms encourage increased militancy and confidence in the working class, they will be met with open resistance the bourgeoisie and action by the state apparatus. Ultimately, an overturn of capitalism can only come about through the self-activity of the working class. A commitment to a parliamentary road to socialism necessarily requires a focus upon alliances within parliament and other state institutions, concessions to the bourgeoisie and the demobilisation of the working class.

In Britain over the last five years there has been nowhere near the level of working class militancy witnessed in Chile in 1970-73. In fact, strikes remain at a historic low. Nevertheless, the parlous state of the British economy, the sheer mess of the Tories as traditional party of capital, forced by its right wing and the racist populist Nigel Farage to pursue a policy (Brexit) opposed by the City and Big Capital, has led to a major period of crisis. When we consider, also, that the Labour right wing lost control of the party for four years, the reasons for the anti-Corbyn hysteria become plain.

Despite the differences between Allende’s open popular front party alliance and a Left Labour government, the common strategy of reformism is clear. The Corbyn leadership’s attempts to appease the Labour Party’s right wing, who as far as their politics go are as much representatives of the bourgeoisie, as if they were members of a openly bourgeois party, meant a deliberate demobilisation of the movement and its restriction to electoral campaigning. This, for all their talk of the need for building a mass social movement, and John McDonnell’s “war game scenario planning” to prevent a run on the pound and capital flight, nothing was done.

Further proof of this is that Corbyn was defeated at the first hurdle, the ballot box, in part because he faced the whole spectrum of ruling class hegemony – sabotage by right wing of the party, the PLP and universal condemnation by the print and broadcast media. But even if he had managed to overcome those forces and won a majority, they, along with the monarchy, the civil service, the judiciary and the “serving general’s” threats too, would have become a reality.

At no point in the five years of Corbyn’s leadership was this battery of ruling class power recognised and communicated to his supporters, let alone a strategy articulated as to what to do about with it. A vague allusion to the need for a movement to force these measures through was occasionally made, but there was little attempt to build this on the ground. Momentum, which in its early days had the potential to build such a social movement, was swiftly and deliberately transformed into a vehicle for election campaigns and supporting the leadership. There was no attempt to build a radical movement within the trade unions. Instead, all hopes were placed on gaining a Labour majority in Parliament. When this was lost the game was up.

The lesson of both a powerful revolutionary crisis like Chile or a major political crisis such as we have been living thorough this past five years, is that what is required is a revolutionary party dedicated to the self-liberation of the working class, not reforming capitalism through its own state. It is often argued that such a strategy is unrealistic. Building such a party will certainly be a difficult task. However, the catastrophic events of 11 September 1973 demonstrate that there is no constitutional, parliamentary road to socialism. It is the height of naivety to think that the ruling class will allow any government to simply legislate for socialism, and they will use any means – legal or not – to prevent that from happening. Only a mass, revolutionary movement, which disarms the capitalist state and takes power into its own hands, has any hope of winning.

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