What if the bosses fight back? The lessons of the Chilean Popular Unity 1970–1973

09 September 2023

By Stuart King

GENERAL AUGUSTO Pinochet’s coup of 11 September 1973 was the most severe defeat suffered by the international working class of the post-war epoch. The events of 1970-73 hold vital lessons for us in a new period of revolutions and military coups. We commemorate this period in the belief that whenever the working class fails to learn from the past it is condemned to relive it.

On 4 November 1970, Salvador Allende took up the Presidency of Chile. At the head of Popular Unity, he had achieved 36.3% of the popular vote while his two bourgeois rivals gained 34.9% and 27.8% of the vote. The disunity of the main capitalist parties was a mark of Chile’s deep crisis.

Popular Unity brought together the Communist and Socialist parties with three small bourgeois parties (the Radical Party, the Social Democratic Party and Independent Popular Action), based mainly on the small industrialists, businessmen and professionals. A small petit bourgeois party, the Popular Unitary Action Movement, which was closer to the CP and SP, made up the coalition.

Allende described his government’s manifesto as ‘not a communist programme, nor a socialist programme’, but ‘a convergence of opinion.’ Popular Unity, he made clear, was not going to attack capitalism in Chile. How could it, with three parties that openly defended capitalist property within its ranks?

The CP held to a 40-year old commitment to the ‘revolution by stages’ in which the present stage had to be conducted in alliance with the national bourgeoisie. Its aims were limited to breaking the power of the landed oligarchy, the monopolists and the US multinationals.

There was one drawback to this strategy. The decisive sections of the Chilean ruling class were precisely the oligarchs and monopolists. No distinct national bourgeoisie, capable of independent action against the US, existed. The weakness of the bourgeois parties which joined Popular Unity reflected just this.

Workers push reforms

Popular Unity’s programme seemed to offer a series of dynamic reforms—redistribution of the landed estates, nationalisation of US copper companies and the use of an expanded state and ‘mixed sector’ to promote growth and development. Why then was the victory of Popular Unity greeted with such trepidation by the most important sections of the Chilean ruling class?

Not because they feared the credentials of Allende. The real fear of the ruling elite in Chile and of their US masters was that a Popular Unity victory would raise expectations among the masses—not just in Chile but also throughout Latin America. A hard-line reactionary faction, backed by the CIA and US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, wanted to stop Allende at all costs.

After an abortive coup in October 1970, the Christian Democratic Party tied Allende’s hands by getting him to sign a ‘Statute of Guarantees’, in return for their support for his appointment as President by Congress. Allende agreed to their terms without any complaint: no reduction in the size of the armed forces, no ‘interference’ with the judiciary, schools and media and no ‘private’ militias. This strengthened the opposition-dominated Congress against the executive.

A massive upsurge in working class struggle and confidence followed Allende’s election. By 1972, trade union membership rose to 800,000, 25% of the working population. Both the Socialist and Communist parties grew dramatically. On the land, there was a veritable class war between the campesinos (rural workers and peasants) and the big landowners. In 1971 the government registered 1,278 land seizures.

The government implemented a series of wage increases. Social welfare measures were introduced, such as increased family allowances. The decree for the nationalisation of the big US copper mines was passed unanimously through Congress. The predominantly US-owned banking sector was also generously bought out.

But already the limits of Popular Unity’s programme were being exposed. The Agrarian Reform was extremely weak, giving compensation to the latifundia while allowing them to keep 80 hectares of land of their choice plus buildings, machinery, animals, etc. This only accelerated the campesinos’ actions. After meeting with the National Farm Owners’ Organisation, Allende announced special legislation to punish those who instigated land seizures.

In the urban areas, the class struggle likewise forced the government’s hand. In the face of employers’ sabotage, workers struck back. Throughout 1971 the government made use of an old 1932 law to ‘intervene’ in industries threatened with bankruptcy or social conflict, a measure just short of outright nationalisation. No fewer than 70 industrial enterprises were in this way effectively socialised under working class pressure.

These, together with the nationalised copper, nitrate, iron and coal concerns, the banks and the initial state enterprises, now made up the ‘Social Production Sector’, which accounted by 1972 for some 20% of production. In the April 1971 municipal elections Popular Unity increased its share of the vote to 51%.

The counter-offensive

By the summer of 1971 US imperialism and the Chilean bourgeoisie started to seriously move against the government. Loans, credits and investments from international agencies were either blocked, delayed or tied to stringent conditions.

The big US copper companies attempted to put an embargo on Chilean copper shipments through the international courts, while internal economic sabotage by Chilean business seriously weakened the economy. Congress used its power to veto legislation and impeach government ministers.

In December 1971, a Christian Democrat-backed middle-class housewives’ march was ‘protected’ by the fascist youth of Patria y Libertad resulting in widespread street clashes with Popular Unity supporters.
The SP and CP leaders faced a stark choice. They could have nationalised the land and factories without compensation, faced down the bureaucracy and judiciary, democratised the armed forces and mobilised a workers’ and peasants’ militia to enforce these measures.

But the whole Popular Unity strategy dictated another path. By April 1972 the leadership was in full retreat. The government attempted, unsuccessfully, to broaden its alliance by bringing in more decisive sections of the bourgeoisie through greater concessions to them. The workers and peasants were expected to practise the virtues of discipline and self-sacrifice in the ‘battle for production’.

Yet the workers themselves took another course. At the end of 1971, the Linares Province Campesino Council, together with the Popular Unity and MIR regional committees, demanded ‘the immediate elimination of latifundia, the expropriation of the estates, that expropriated land should not be compensated and the building of campesino councils’.

In Concepcion, in July 1972, the Socialist Party regional committee held a People’s Assembly which denounced the government’s submission to the demands of the bourgeoisie. The national Popular Unity parties, fearful of the right, quickly repudiated their regional committees’ decisions.

Most importantly, in June 1972, the first cordones industriales (area committees linking up workers in different factories) were born. A group of locked-out workers of a canning plant in Cerrillos set up an area committee and blocked all roads around the industrial zone, forcing the government to concede their demands.

The bosses’ strike

In the summer and autumn of 1972, the bosses stepped up their offensive. Hoarding and speculation by distributors and shop owners caused widespread shortages. Inflation almost hit 100% in September. In October, the opposition, now united in the ironically named Democratic Federation, declared the government of Allende to be ‘illegitimate’. A bosses’ strike was organised for 9 October, starting with the Truck Owners’ Federation. These small owners, supplied with limitless CIA funds, declared an indefinite general stoppage, which would quickly strangle the economy. Three days later the retail trade association joined the strike and medium sized and big industries declared a lockout.

The government turned to the army, placing 13 provinces under military control. In contrast the workers met the bosses’ strike with a wave of occupations and by commandeering transport.

Working class women’s committees requisitioned food and re-opened closed shops, fixing the prices for the goods sold. The cordones industriales spread through all the major industrial centres, with a directly elected workers’ committee. They organised defence, transport and production, in liaison with the neighbourhood and shanty town committees.

Faced with this growing mass takeover of production and distribution by the workers and the poor, the bourgeoisie panicked. By the end of October, all sections of it were clamouring for negotiations with the government. Yet the Popular Unity government managed to snatch defeat out of the jaws of a victory the workers had won for it.

Having failed to bring the wider bourgeoisie into government, it brought in the military. The SP and CP had always peddled the illusion that the Chilean army was ‘constitutional’, ‘professional’ and pledged to support any democratically elected government. CP leader Corvalan opposed demands to arm the workers as the ‘equivalent of showing distrust in the army’.

Indeed, the armed forces had a long and ‘distinguished’ record of ‘preserving the institutional system’ but the system was capitalism, committing a whole series of massacres of workers; it was trained by the USA. Such was the ‘ally’ that Popular Unity called on in November 1972.

The left was fatally ambiguous on the nature of the army. The SP left wrote on 17 November: ‘The Socialist Party has never objected to the presence of uniformed men in the cabinet. That is the prerogative of the President’. The same crisis of political leadership was present within the cordones, too. For all their militancy and initiative in the emergency, in the absence of an alternative strategy to that of the government, they went into decline after November.

The Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR) counterposed its own front organisations to the cordones. Politically, it flipped from boycotting the 1970 elections to giving ‘critical support’ to the government. In the army it only denounced ‘some bad officers’ but emphasised its ‘true patriotic and democratic role’.

The crucial task facing the Chilean working class was winning the cordones to demand that the CP and SP leaders break with the bourgeois parties, kick the military out of the government and install a workers’ and peasants’ government, based on its fighting mass organisations and acting to meet the urgent needs of the masses. This should have included a campaign to win rank and file sailors and soldiers against the coup mongers, for full democratic rights and the formation and arming of workers’ militias.

A campaign for the expropriation of the big farms and industries under workers’ control, cancellation of the foreign debt and expropriation of the imperialist interests could have won the SP and CP rank and file to a revolutionary communist alternative.

Instead, the government proposed to return 123 occupied enterprises to their former owners. Only massive working class resistance led by the cordones and sections of the socialist left blocked the plan. This convinced the bourgeoisie that, whilst it had nothing to fear from Allende, a bloody coup was needed to defeat the workers.

The original 9/11

In May 1973 acting Commander-in-Chief Augusto Pinochet approved an army raid of the Socialist Party and in June attempted a coup. The coup makers were in the ascendant in an increasingly divided army.
July opened with a series of arms raids against factories, union offices and campuses, leaving behind a trail of dead and imprisoned. In early August, a group of sailors and petty officers, who had opposed the coup preparations, were themselves arrested and tortured. The High Command accused the left of incitement to mutiny. Allende not only refused to support or order their release but denounced the ‘attempt by ultra left sailors to organise cells in ships of the national fleet.’ Allende was not only digging his own grave but, more tragically, that of thousands of working class militants.

On 11 September the coup came, organised with US assistance. Despite heroic resistance by the cordones and rank and file SP, CP and MIR militants, the lack of weapons and centralised coordination meant that it was crushed with exceptional violence. Allende himself was killed.

In the capital, Santiago, the national football stadium was converted into a concentration camp holding some 5,000 inmates in appalling conditions. At least 250,000 Chileans were detained, raped and tortured, 3,200 were killed, 1,300 ‘disappeared’ and 30,000 fled into exile.

So ended the ‘experiment’ with a peaceful democratic stage along the ‘Chilean Road to Socialism’, based on an alliance with a supposed patriotic bourgeoisie and army. As in Spain between 1936-39, the Popular Front once again delivered the working class into the hands of deepest reaction.

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