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Its 40 years since the US-backed coup that brought the brutal dictator Augusto Pinochet to power in Chile

Salvador Allende - the left-reformist Popular Unity president of Chile in 1970-1973There are two 9/11s. In the better known, in 2001, the people of New York were the targets and 3,000 perished. Less well known is that of 1973. In this case, it was a military coup backed by the US government against the democratically elected government of Chile. Up to 5,000 activists were murdered, 30,000 detained, and one of the most powerful working-class movements of the great upsurge of global struggle between 1968 and 1975 was destroyed.

The history of Chile between 1970 and 1973 has rich lessons to teach. We are reminded that our rulers’ claims to champion democracy are postures and lies. A manipulated ‘democracy’ from above provides them with a veneer of legitimacy. But a real democracy from below which begins to challenge their profit and power is a mortal danger. Then it is a matter of the club, the gun, and the prison-camp.

But there is a deeper lesson. It concerns the realities of power when the stakes are this high. It has to do with the uncompromising character of the class struggle when the question of state power is posed; that is, when a social and political crisis becomes a revolutionary crisis, and the possibility arises of one class displacing another in control of society. Chile experienced such a crisis between October 1972 and September 1973.

‘Those who half make a revolution,’ the French Jacobin leader Louis Antoine de Saint-Just had said two centuries earlier, ‘merely dig their own graves.’ Those socialists, we might say today, who fail to grasp the difference between reform and revolution risk repeating the mistakes of Salvador Allende, the Popular Unity government, and the Chilean Left in 1973.

Revolution and counter-revolution in Chile

‘You can’t make a revolution by playing marbles’: that was the conclusion of a working-class activist at a factory in Chile in October 1972. ‘When there’s a problem, we workers have to take the front-line. We’ve learned more in these few days than in all the previous two years.’

The Chilean bourgeoisie had gone onto the offensive against the two-year-old Popular Unity (UP) government of Salvador Allende. In a long, thin country almost entirely dependent on road haulage for the movement of goods, the lorry owners had gone on strike.

They were the spearhead of a wider attempt to destabilise the left-wing government and defeat a rising popular movement of industrial workers, agricultural labourers, and the shanty-town poor. Shop-owners were also on strike and factory bosses were sabotaging production. Chile was threatened with economic paralysis.

Salvador Allende had been elected president in late 1970 at the head of a coalition of left parties dominated by the Social-Democratic and Communist Parties. The UP coalition had secured 36% of the national vote followed a wave of strikes, land occupations, and radicalisation during the 1960s.

Allende’s aims were moderate. He wanted to resume a stalled land-reform programme, nationalise key industries, reflate a sluggish economy, increase wages, and reduce unemployment. He believed this could be done through parliament.

Eager to reassure the rich, big business, and the middle class, he expressed firm support for private property and the existing state. The police were used against popular protests and left-wing groups. He denounced ‘divisive action whose effect is to undermine the homogeneity of the UP movement’.

This did nothing to conciliate the bourgeoisie. They feared the mass movement from below on whose support the government rested. Allende’s moderation divided and discouraged his own supporters while giving confidence to his enemies. The lorry owners’ strike of October 1972 was the result. It was a full-on attempt to bring down the government.

The army and the cordones: dual power

The people of the cordones - the mass movement that could have won.The outcome did not depend on Allende: it depended on the cordones. These were popular democratic organisations that linked together working people in factories and communities. The cordones were capable of acting independently of the government. They acted now to lead mass direct action to defeat the bosses’ strike.

Transport was commandeered to move food and other essentials. Shops were re-opened and factories taken over by the workers. Distribution systems were set up in the shanty-towns, including collective kitchens for the children of the poor. Defence and vigilance committees were established to resist fascist violence. The cordones mushroomed into a nationwide network.

The events of October 1972 created a revolutionary crisis. The cordones were alliances of unionised workers, unorganised workers, agricultural labourers, and the shanty-town poor. They embodied leadership from below unshackled by the conservatism of UP politicians. They gained a sense of their own power from the struggle against the lorry owners. They were the embryo of a true people’s democracy.

The rise of the cordones raised the stakes. The response of the government was a shift to the right. Allende declared a national state of emergency and invited several generals to join his cabinet.

The lorry owners immediately called off their strike: the reconstituted government represented, for them at least, a major victory. The army proceeded to ‘restore order’ by taking action to demobilise the popular movement and return control of the factories to their former owners.

A question of leadership

Increasingly, the UP government was less a protagonist and more a spectator in the escalating class confrontation between the Chilean bourgeoisie, represented by the army, and the popular movement, represented by the cordones. More and more the secret talk among top generals was of a military coup. In the cordones, on the other hand, there was a fatal lack of clear-sighted leadership.

Most of the Chilean Left was part of the UP coalition. Many activists were critical of Allende and the right-wing ministers in his cabinet. But none thought in terms of a complete break to create a new organisation. Their aim was to transform UP, a reformist coalition, into a revolutionary party.

Even those to the left of UP, like the Revolutionary Movement of the Left (MIR), were too confused to provide effective popular leadership. The MIR journal responded to Allende’s invitation to the generals to join his cabinet by arguing that ‘the armed forces have a patriotic and democratic role to play in ... supporting the workers in their struggle against exploitation.’ Later, in July 1973, the same journal called for ‘a joint dictatorship of the people and the armed forces’.

The entire Chilean Left was in a disastrous muddle about the nature of the state, the character of dual power, and the difference between reform and revolution.

The existing state, representing the rich and big business, was inherently hostile to the popular movement. On the other hand, the cordones had the potential to evolve into an alternative state based on mass participatory democracy. These two political forces constituted a form of ‘dual power’ between October 1972 and September 1973.

Dual power is unstable. That is why revolution cannot stand still. Either it advances to new victories or it ends in the defeat of the mass movement. By late 1972, the social and political polarisation in Chile was on such a scale that compromise had become impossible: there was no ‘middle way’ out of the crisis. At some point, either the reformist UP government would have to be overthrown by the revolutionary action of the popular movement, or it would be overthrown by the army acting on behalf of the bourgeoisie.

The military coup

The 1973 coup - the army surrounds the presidential palace in Santiago, the Chilean capital.This – until it was too late – the Chilean Left failed to grasp. In consequence, the potential of the cordones went unrealised; they were never forged into a single, united, insurrectionary movement for the seizure of state power, the dispossession of the rich, and the socialist transformation of Chilean society.

A maverick coup attempt on 29 June 1973 evoked a similar response from Allende as that during the October crisis: he declared a state of emergency, brought a second raft of generals into his government, and called on the army to restore order.

July and August were months of escalating crisis. The economy was paralysed by a second lorry owners’ strike, and parliament log-jammed by anti-Allende impeachment resolutions. But UP ministers reserved their venom for their own supporters, denouncing the Left while praising the ‘patriotism and loyalty’ of the armed forces.

Even now, events could have ended differently. In parliamentary elections in March the UP vote had increased to 44%. The cordones had extended their influence. New sections of the working class had been drawn into battle. Popular resistance to military repression during the second state of emergency had been widespread and militant. Many workers had refused to hand the factories back to their former owners and instead demanded that the whole of industry be taken over.

But national co-ordination and revolutionary leadership were lacking as the crisis approached its climax. Increasingly the army was able to dismantle and disarm a fragmented mass movement, preparing the ground for the coup they were planning in collusion with Chilean landowners and bosses, US multinational corporations, and the CIA.

At nine o’clock on the morning of 11 September 1973, the presidential palace in Santiago was surrounded by tanks. Allende committed suicide. Thousands of his supporters were rounded up and imprisoned in military bases or improvised camps, including the National Football Stadium. Many were later raped, tortured, and murdered. An estimated 30,000 in all were detained, and up to 5,000 killed in the years following the coup.

The Chilean revolutionary movement was thereby decapitated. The common people relapsed into resignation and passivity. And as the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet consolidated its power, the sinister gurus of ‘monetarist’ economics emerged from the shadows to test-run their schemes on the broken back of Chilean democracy.

Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.

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