Chile Solidarity Campaign national demonstration, 16 September 1979 Chile Solidarity Campaign national demonstration, 16 September 1979. Photo: Gillfoto / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Divisions between reformist and revolutionary strategies were exposed by the efforts to build a Chile solidarity movement in the UK, explains Chris Bambery

This article is the second part of a two-part series. Read Part One here.

On 11 September 1973, I was working at a summer job between school and university. The radio was on and in the early afternoon a news bulletin announced that there had been a military coup in Chile, the presidential palace had been attacked by warplanes (British supplied), and President Salvador Allende had been killed.

This was not unexpected news. There had been a failed coup early that summer, the military high command wasn’t ready and didn’t back it, and since then expectations were high that another would follow. Despite that, on hearing the news I burst into tears, knowing that terror was being unleashed against the people of Chile.

Very quickly solidarity actions and meetings sprung up, for good reason. The Tory government in London welcomed the new dictatorship. The government of Edward Health recognised Pinochet’s Junta withing eleven days. ‘Now is the time to get in’, a head diplomat urged the government immediately following the coup, warning that a delay in expressing this friendship would create ‘difficulty in finding a comfortable seat with the new military regime.’ From Santiago, the British ambassador pointed out: ‘There is no doubt that Chile under the junta is a better prospect than Allende’s chaotic road to socialism … investments should be better.’[1]

Also, British Hawker Hunter jets had bombed the Presidential Palace in Santiago and that was a matter of shame for the left. But there was another good reason why we felt the necessity of organising solidarity. We had been watching and discussing events in Chile for some time. It was an experiment which required attention.

In the summer of 1972, I recall selling a socialist paper, Red Mole, at a mass meeting of striking building workers. One asked me what needed to be done in Chile. I replied, ‘arm the workers.’ I was sixteen so it was a bit crude, but he seemed to like it (he joined us shortly afterwards). For three years, the workers and peasants of Chile had been an inspiration to those of us on the revolutionary left. The election of a Popular Unity government exactly three years earlier had ignited a major debate across the left, here and internationally, into which I had thrown myself.

Revolution or reform debate

Popular Unity united the powerful Socialist Party, the Communist Party (itself a major force), with lesser groups, including some that identified themselves as being revolutionary. The new president, Allende, pointed to similarities between Chile and the UK: the strength of parliamentarianism, the commitment of all to parliamentary means and the refusal of the armed forces to become involved in politics. Left Labour MPs and the Communist Party, a major force in the trade unions, pointed to Chile as proof that their programme of getting a left-wing government elected to bring fundamental change via parliament, was being enacted in Chile.

We revolutionaries countered that whether in Chile of the UK, the capitalist state was not neutral and had often used extra parliamentary means, often bloody, to maintain capitalism. That debate did not end on 11 September 1973, indeed it intensified. As news of these terrible events spread, there were two responses on the left. Those such as the communists and social democrats drew the lesson that Allende had been too radical, while those on the revolutionary left saw the bloodbath as the inevitable consequence of not building new forms of workers’ power capable of confronting the state.

In Italy, the largest communist party in the world outside Russia and China, declared Allende had moved too quickly, and that prudence was necessary. Accordingly, the Italian Communist Party stated that a ‘Historic Compromise’ was needed with the historic party of the Italian elite, the Christian Democrats. Their general secretary, Enrico Berlinguer, stated:

‘Great changes cannot be brought about by antagonizing powerful oppositions by splitting, as it were, society into two hostile camps. Rather, such changes can be accomplished only by forging alliances with a variety of different social groups and with the mass parties which represent them.’[2]

The general election of June 1976 saw the Christian Democrats (DC) emerge as a minority government, and they understood that to govern Italy, they needed the involvement of the PCI in some form or other.

A bargain was struck; in return for sustaining the DC in office, the PCI would receive explicit recognition of its increased importance in Congress and the Senate, including being granted several important chairmanships, and the office of Speaker of the House. June 1976 also saw Berlinguer declare that he felt ‘safer under NATO’s umbrella’.[3] Soon after, they began championing the joys of austerity as the solution to Italy’s ailing economy. The effect was to dampen working-class struggle. The Christian Democrats gained and by 1979, the Historic Compromise was a dead letter.

Solidarity campaigns

Meanwhile, the left of all shades was building solidarity with Chilean workers, including refugees who quickly turned up in Edinburgh needing support. Within days of the coup, the student rector of Edinburgh University, Gordon Brown, organised a meeting for the ousted Chilean ambassador. It filled the university’s largest auditorium. It was tepid fare for my comrades and myself. To our delight, one refugee turned out to be an active member of the MIR (Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria; Revolutionary Left Movement) and we worked closely with him.

The Chile Solidarity Campaign (CSC) was initiated by the Communist Party and involved a number of left Labour MPs: Martin Flannery, Judith Hart (who would become Minister of Overseas Development in early 1974, when a Labour government was elected), Eddy Loyden, Neil Kinnock, Jo Richardson, Ian Mikardo, Greville Janner, Clinton Davis, Tony Benn, and Eric Heffer. Nineteen trade unions affiliated to it.

The election of a Labour government in February 1974 gave new impetus to solidarity campaigning. Surely Labour would have to deliver over things like arms sales to the regime in Santiago, if not breaking off diplomatic relations.

But the Communist Party and their Labour left allies were caught in a dilemma. The CP’s membership was based largely among shop stewards who were some of the best class fighters. But their strategy centred on capturing positions within the trade-union machine and building a close alliance with left trade-union leaders. However, the latter were loyal supporters of Labour, and with it back in government, their instinct was not to rock the boat. The CP did not want to break with them, so accordingly trailed along behind them.

An ‘action conference’ called by the CSC in March 1974 showed the resulting problem. The keynote speaker was Ricardo Figueroa, an exiled Chilean Communist, who told the gathering: ‘the Popular Unity had made mistakes – they had tried to go too fast.’

The conference then split into three workshops. At the one on ‘Other Forms of Solidarity’, Tariq Ali pointed out that Ron Hayward, Labour’s general secretary, and a minister in the new government, Judith Hart, had called for the breaking ‘of all relations’ with the dictatorship. He proposed a demonstration in May to take up that call. This was opposed by the CSC secretary, Steve Hart, but the workshop voted in favour of the demo. Somehow when Steve Hart reported back from the workshop, he didn’t mention the proposed demo. The chair, a leading figure in the Communist Party, then ruled against any discussion from the floor.

In April 1974, Foreign Secretary Jim Callaghan announced that the Labour government had authorised the delivery of two Oberon frigates, and two Leander submarines would also be delivered to the Pinochet dictatorship.

Demonstration and boycotts

The demonstration Tariq had proposed went ahead on 5 May in London with some 8,000 people marching. The biggest contingents were from the International Socialists and the International Marxist Group. Red Weekly, the IMG paper, reported: ‘There was a fair sprinkling of trade union banners. Labour Party, Communist Party and local Chile Solidarity Committee contingents were also there.’ Speakers included Jack Collins of the Kent mineworkers, Ken Coates of the Institute for Workers Control, Ernie Roberts of the AUEW [the engineering union] and Stan Newens MP. The central theme of the march was for a boycott of all goods waiting delivery to Chile from British factories and shipyards.

On the first anniversary of the coup, the Labour Party National Executive Committee voted to back the march called by the CSC. Speakers included Ron Hayward, Labour’s general secretary, Hortensia Allende, widow of the murdered president, Jack Jones, head of the Transport and General Workers Union and Tariq Ali for the IMG. Because the latter was speaking, the Trades Union Congress refused to back it! Then in the week before, because a general election had been called, Labour requested it be postponed. This the CSC rejected. On the day, 10,000 demonstrated in central London.

To conclude, I want to recall two significant acts of solidarity, both carried out in Scotland. A year after the coup, a Chilean submarine arrived to have its tail shafts replaced at the Rosyth naval dockyard. Shop stewards refused to carry out the work, and wrote to the Ministry of Defence stating: ‘No future Chilean Navy work will be done in Rosyth dockyard until the fascist junta is removed and a freely, democratically elected government put in power and human rights restored in Chile.’ The boycott of work for the Chilean navy remained in place for four years until the MoD agreed they would not be asked to do such work.

Meanwhile, Rolls Royce workers in East Kilbride refused to release engines for the very planes that had bombed Allende’s presidential palace.[4] The Engineering Union asked the workers to lift their boycott on the grounds Rolls Royce was a nationalised industry! Eventually in February 1975, under pressure from the union leadership the boycott was called off.

The action of Scottish workers had an impact within Chile itself:

‘One Chilean exile, Sergio, recounted that he was in prison when he heard the news from the guard’s radio that British workers had blocked Chilean weapons. He recalled this as a moment of hope for him which gave him the strength to continue. When he was exiled to Britain, he returned to visit the workers of East Kilbride who had refused to work on Chilean weapons, to thank them for their act of solidarity.’[5]

Such actions by workers in Scotland were not just an inspiration, they showed what real solidarity could deliver, and what was possible if the entire left had put their backs into building it.

[1] Shirin Hirsch, ‘A Quarrel of Limited Concern to the People of this Country’?: The British Labour Movement and Chile Solidarity’, Labour History Review 81.3, 2016, pp.237-57.

[2] Giacomo Sani, ‘The PCI on the Threshold’, Problems of Communism 25, November-December 1976, p.40.

[3] James E. Dougherty and Dianne K. Pfaltzgraff, ‘Euro-Communism and the Atlantic Alliance’, Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, 1977, p.40-2

[4] Chris Bambery, A People’s History of Scotland (Verso, 2014), p.250.

[5] Shirin Hirsch, ‘A Quarrel of Limited Concern to the People of this Country’?: The British Labour Movement and Chile Solidarity’.

Before you go

Counterfire is growing faster than ever before

We need to raise £20,000 as we are having to expand operations. We are moving to a bigger, better central office, upping our print run and distribution, buying a new printer, new computers and employing more staff.

Please give generously.

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

Tagged under: