Chile: how the army killed reform

September 11, 2013 at 4:28 pm (AWL, democracy, history, Latin America, posted by JD, reformism, socialism, thuggery, tragedy, United States)

Soldiers carry the body of President Salvador Allende, wrapped in a poncho. (AP Photo/El Mercurio, File)

Above: soldiers carry the body of Allende, wrapped in a poncho

By Cathy Nugent (from the Workers Liberty website)

On 11 September 1973, a bloody military coup in Chile ousted the Popular Unity government of President Salvador Allende. Allende was killed defending the Presidential Palace during the coup.

Workers in the factories attempted to defend themselves against the military attacks — but they were not sufficiently organised or sufficiently armed, to stop the onslaught.

The military regime of General Pinochet which followed tortured and killed hundreds of thousands of working-class militants and political activists.

Allende’s Popular Unity (UP) coalition government was elected in 1970. The two main parties were the pro-Moscow Communist Party and Allende’s Socialist Party. Allende considered himself a Marxist.

The Chilean Communist Party had a stagist strategy for achieving socialism in Latin American countries. The first stage was for the workers to defeat the “reactionary feudal sector”, forming an alliance with the “progressive” national bourgeoisie. Then the workers’ movement would proceed to a struggle for socialism.

Yet by 1970 Chile was a fully bourgeois society. Even if there had been an important economic distinction between landlords and capitalists, politically the ruling class as a whole was united against working class or struggle.

The Socialist Party was nominally Marxist. In 1973 the overthrow of the capitalist state was still party policy, but not a policy that the party adhered to in practice.

The Popular Unity government came to power on a wave of radicalisation in 1970, boosted by dissatisfaction with a mild reform programme of a Christian Democrat government. Allende promised more.

The Popular Unity government believed Chilean economic development should take place without reliance on aid, loans or investment from abroad, particularly the United States. It stood in the tradition of the 1938 -1946 Chilean “Popular Front” government of the Radical Party, supported by the Communist Party and the Socialist Party.

Popular Unity’s reforms were far-reaching. By 1973 about 40% of land had been expropriated and turned into smaller plots and co-operatives. Copper and nitrate mines were nationalised, as were the banks and many smaller industries. The government intended to compensate the capitalists but could not afford it! Many nationalisations were on the initiative of the workers.

From day one the US State Department, headed by Henry Kissinger, funded the military and right-wing opposition to Popular Unity. The 1973 coup was actively backed by the CIA.

By 1972 Popular Unity began to be destabilised: the US withdrew credit; financial speculation was rife; agricultural productivity was low; wage strikes continued right through to 1973.

This led to economic crisis and crippling inflation which by 1972 had generated a middle-class and bourgeois reaction threatening the existence of the government.

Instead of building on the mass working-class support for its policies, the government grew less inclined to make concessions to the workers.

In May 1972 a demonstration in Concepcion in support of further nationalisation, was fired upon by cabineros acting on the orders of the Communist Party mayor.

Instead of acting against the Chilean financiers, the government encouraged wage “restraint” in order to “conquer” inflation.

Allende believed a loyal “constitutional” majority among the officers would not allow a military coup.

In August 1972 the government sent in the police against a shopkeepers’ strike in Santiago to try to get them to open up (many of them had been hoarding and conducting black market trading). This prompted violence from the fascist opposition.

In October 1972 the truck owners went on strike against a proposed state-controlled truck company. The strike spread to many other small businesses. In Parliament the opposition tried to impeach four government ministers.

During the middle-class strikes the Chilean workers tried to keep the factories operating, to defend the government and to try to stop the worsening of shortages. But Allende did not build on this support.

Workers’ councils known as cordones were formed in several areas of the country. They saw their goal as keeping production going during the crisis, and defending the gains the workers had won under Allende.

Armed detachments were organised to meet the right-wing threat but were nowhere near widespread enough to save the Chilean workers from the savagery of the army.

Large sections of the Socialist Party supported the cordones, but the Communist Party was very hostile to them, seeing them as a challenge to their hegemony in the trade unions.

In the March 1973 legislative elections, Popular Unity increased its share of the vote to 45% (from 36% in 1970). By May the right was out in force on the streets

Now the miners struck against the withdrawal of the sliding scale of wages. Under this system — won in the first months of the government — wages were pegged to inflation and would rise automatically with the cost of living.

An attempted coup led by a rebel section of the military took place in June 1973. It was not supported by the whole of the military, only because they had not yet fully formulated their policy.

The government still enjoyed massive support amongst the working class. Only five days before the final coup a million people demonstrated in Santiago to celebrate the third anniversary of Allende’s election.

In the event, apart from small armed detachments of workers, the Chilean proletariat was defeated with minimal fighting and then subjected to a terrible butchering.

There followed 16 years — until 1989, when the junta was forced into an election — of the viciously anti-working class Pinochet government.

Marxist socialists have had many debates about the lessons of the coup. They have pointed out that Allende’s refusal to arm the workers was decisive in the defeat of the working class. This is true. But it was only the last act in a tragedy at the core of which was the Popular Unity government’s decision to try to conciliate the capitalists, trying to convince them to go along with its reforms.

As the elected government, the UP thought they had the power — the armed forces. That is why they did not arm the workers. They learned that when it came to it, the capitalists, not parliamentary democracy, had the ultimate loyalty of the armed forces.

The working class of Chile paid for Allende’s weakness, confusion and vacillation with many tens of thousands of proletarian lives.


  1. jimmy glesga said,

    The army had full control and were backed by the US CIA and UK. Democracy is not allowed if you are not subservient to US interests.
    Many more thousands would have died if Allende had attempted to arm the workers. He was not in control of the arms.
    The Catholic anti communist fascist army would have run amok far more than they did.
    I wonder if Assad will be walking along the Kings Road soon doing a bit of shopping like the butcher Pinochet did courtesy of Jack Strawman.

  2. Jason S. said,

    Maybe I’m stupid, but here’s what I don’t understand. As much as I agree that Allende’s conciliationism what doomed from inception, how exactly was he going to arm the entirety of the Chilean working class? Which people, exactly, were going to give the Chilean workers guns? And how were such guns going to prove a match for tanks and fighter planes?

    Better for the SP to have never governed at all, methinks, until (1) it could take power entirely on its own, without the CP (much less the “left” bourgeois parties), (2) it had a strong majority of the workers and the rank and file of the armed forces on its side, (3) it had assisted in the creation of a Latin American Socialist International, independent of the official SI (social democrats) and official Communists, which could have lent assistance to a fledgling Chilean workers’ state.

    • adubcheck67 said,

      (1) it could take power entirely on its own, without the CP (much less the “left” bourgeois parties)

      What is/was wrong with the Chilean CP ? I can’t understand you point

      • Jason S. said,

        The Chilean CP was class-collaborationist and thought that the capitalist state was class-neutral. Period.

      • adubcheck67 said,

        This is interesting:
        I didn’t know that,though I sided istinctively
        with MIR at the time (and now)*.
        Thanks for the answer
        The Latin American Socialist Alliance could hve been a great idea: too bad SP couldn’t work about it 😦

        It should have obviously been “*your* point”

        *I’m more individualist than communist,
        but I appreciate their honesty and their armed struggle against Pinochet

      • adubcheck67 said,

        *have* Sorry

  3. R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    This sour sectarianism just seems to be hugely disrespectful of all those ‘reformists’ and ‘Stalinists’ from Allende downwards – whose errors were paid for not with empty words like these but their own lifeblood.

    The SP and CP of course made fatal mistakes.

    However there is no way we whose last revolutionary success was in 1649 can sit in our comfortable armchairs 40 years later and lecture their murdered ghosts on what course of action they should have taken to achieve revolutionary victory.

    Had the workers been armed (with what and by whom? – were there just huge armouries full of weapons in every town? – and do workers really need no training whatsoever to use them effectively against trained troops and police?) the coup would have just been triggered earlier.

    Real revolutionary history teaches us that even armed workers cannot defeat regular armies unless those armies are themselves divided and mutinous (which the Chilean armed forces certainly were not).

    The Paris Communards were about as well armed, led and organised as any workers militia of the time could conceivably be but were massacred by the regular French army.

    The Red Guards would have been slaughtered like sheep had a single significant formation of the Russian army in Petrograd supported the provisional government and turned their machine guns on them – and in power the Bolsheviks had to fight long and desperately against what were in fact tiny forces of White former army officers and a few battalions of foreign interventionists.

    Armed workers in Germany’s forgotten revolution of 1918-20 were slaughtered in their hundreds by the Freikorps and even the well-armed and organised KPD and SPD militias saw no point of fighting the Nazi takeover in 1933 as the SA, Stahlhelm, police and Reichswehr would have slaughtered them with contemptuous ease (just as their Austrian equivalents did when armed Vienna workers rose up not very much later).

    Even with significant elements of the army and police rallying to them and control of most of the armouries and armament factories on the Spanish mainland the Spanish Republic could not defeat Franco.

    etc, etc, etc….

    Unless the state is itself in a state of collapse all ‘arming the workers’ can ever achieve is to let us die with whatever dignity an armed but untrained amateur fighter can retain when being hunted down by trained killers.

  4. R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,


    Instead of acting against the Chilean financiers, the government encouraged wage “restraint” in order to “conquer” inflation.

    Is student agitprop sloganising of the worst kind (and I should know because I used to talk and write exactly like that).

    Inflation is not a bourgeois lie but a real economic phenomenon which actually hits the poorest in society particularly hard.

    Workers value the savings it destroys the value of precisely because they have worked hard for them and the worst paid workers tend to be the least organised and least capable of forcing cost of living tracking pay rises from employers – and God help anyone who is unemployed and sees the price of basics soar beyond the reach of their benefits.

    And wage restraint was a real policy used in ‘socialist’ societies (including Chile which was certainly a significant way along the path to transition) – and actually hardly used at all in capitalist ones!

    How did the Bolsheviks bring the hyperinflation they created under War Communism under control?

    While eventually like Weimar Germany they cut the Gordian knot by scrapping the old currency altogether, this would hardly have worked if they had not already reduced trade unions to state agencies and restrained wage growth – and if Trotsky had got his way they would have put the entire industrial workforce under military discipline in order to eliminate the very possibility of workers putting forward their own demands on wages and conditions.

    Putting scare quotes around economic terms does not make them magically disappear….

    • Pinkie said,

      “Workers value the savings it destroys the value of precisely because they have worked hard for them and the worst paid workers tend to be the least organised and least capable of forcing cost of living tracking pay rises from employers – and God help anyone who is unemployed and sees the price of basics soar beyond the reach of their benefits.”

      I don’t understand what that is meant to mean.

      • R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

        Admittedly not a well constructed sentence or indeed a well constructed comment.

        But does it really fail to communicate that hyperinflatlon is a bad thing that even left wing governments have to try and control?

        And having just looked the numbers up the Chilean YOY rate went from 25% in Jan 1972 to 164% in December.

        Now obviously wage restraint is not a solution in itself as prices and the money supply also have to be controlled.

        But in a country which genuinely believed it was on the road to socialism it is by no means automatically wicked for a left government to seek to rationally plan all aspects of prices and incomes….

      • R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

        Also interesting to note that despite or because of being run by Friedmanite monetarists parachuted in from Chicago who were supposed to regard inflation as anathema, under Pinochet inflation rapidly doubled from the 304% it reached the month before the coup and only reached ‘normal’ single figures in 1994 after democracy had finally been re-established.

  5. Dave Kirk said,

    A few points

    – Its not sectarian to criticise the policies of the SP or CP in Chile. After all sectarianism is putting the intrests of your group, party, tendency, tradition etc ahead of the intrest of the class. We are discussing the interest of the class. i am sure cathy’s criticism echo those made by many Chilean exiled members of CP and SP after the 73 coup. Its not disrespectful of those who died to criticise. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church we should not beatify those in our movement who die and move them beyond criticism. Connelly, Allende, Luxemburg, Marx, Lenin, Louise Michel etc where politicians of the working class they should be jusged politically.

    – On inflation, if the Allende governement mobalised the workers themselves against inflation by getting them to help implement price controls, exchange controls and end speculation, whilst also giving workers a role ensuring key staples are available to all, workers would have an intrest, ownership and control in keeping inflation down in wages as well.

    – If the governement had encouraged and handed power to the cordones movement, and if the workers militia’s were much wider spread, better armed and trained. Docialism in chile may have been able to survive the coup because power and leadership would not have been concentrated in the government.

    Power for the working class doesnt reside primarily at the point of a gun or in the offices of state. Fundamentally it is at point of production, in its international character and in its ability to self organise where workers are strongest. The Mubarak dictatorship, the Kapp Putsch, Kornilov where all brought down by strikes in key sectors.

    if the purpose of the governement had been to help the working class develop dual power not just to instigate reform itself its overthrow might have been averted or at least been just the beginning of the struggle.


    • R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

      Sectarianism is of course what we do and I enjoy a good ruck between Marxists as much as anyone.

      My first point was simply one of I suppose etiquette: having been murdered – and in many cases horribly tortured to death in places like the Villa Grimaldi – by the class enemy your shade does deserve a modicum of real respect whatever political errors you may have made.

      So critique away but that these Reformists and Stalinists paid with their lives not for their errors, but because what they got right sufficiently terrified the ruling class that it abandoned all vestiges of bourgeois liberalism and resorted to mass-murder, torture and dictatorship to defend themselves,

      And the Allende government did not just attempt to control inflation by asking (not by imposing legally as the bourgeois Heath government was doing here at that very time) for wage restraint but also did make strenuous efforts to control prices and profits and to maintain basic supplies – and it was those very measures that mobilised the shopkeepers, truck drivers and other petit-bourgeois elements against him.

      So what could ‘whilst also giving workers a role ensuring key staples are available to all’ actually mean in a country like Chile which is a long, long coastal strip, a lot of mountains and was not like say Bolshevik Russia even theoretically capable of feeding itself and supplying all of its basic needs but needed to export and import on a massive scale and thus had to operate within global capitalist commodity markets.

      Plus that mobilising the workers to self-organise production and distribution failed catastrophically even and especially in Bolshevik Russia where cities and towns literally starved until that bureaucratic caste took over from the soviets and was able to actually organise food collection and distribution.

      And how does one hand power to cordones and arms to the workers without prompting an immediate reactionary coup?

      Indeed it was precisely the government’s increasing refusal to play by bourgeois constitutional rules which led the Chilean supreme court and the bourgeois majority in the Chamber of Deputies to explicitly call for the armed forces to overthrow Allende.

      And do you really imagine that there was no one in the SP or CP arguing for this?

      Now given that with hindsight we know that the coup happened anyway had some guns been distributed then maybe at least the bloodbath when it came might have been somewhat less one-sided and even bloodier.

      But Allende and his supporters did not have magical prophetic powers and were living in a country which unusually in Latin America did have a very long record of bourgeois liberalism – so they no more believed at a visceral level that in a few months they would all be dead, exiled or being imprisoned and tortured by psychopaths than any of us would have done in Britain back in 1972.

      And strikes are indeed a powerful tool but only work when the state is weak and sets itself limits on the savagery it is willing to employ to suppress workers.

      So what do you think Chilean workers did in response to the coup – did they all go meekly into work next day? – no they attempted strikes which were savagely suppressed just as were the MIR’s attempts at organising guerilla warfare.

      And while I’ll give you Kapp and Kornilov (both of whom were incidentally reactionary conspirators in rebellion against bourgeois governments which they considered insufficiently brutal in suppressing the workers) you really think strikes were the one decisive factor bringing down Mubarak?

      Chile is not a convenient debating point to be deployed by armchair revolutionaries from countries where the left is a pitiful and pathetic joke in proving who is the most orthodox Marxist but a huge and terrible tragedy that deserves not empty sloganising but real and rigorous analysis.

      • jimmy glesga said,

        The Coup was orchestrared by the CIA for US interests and Pinochet had his interests. The torture that followed kind of makes Assad legitimate in US terms. And of course Britain was the first to recognise the Coup. Help ma Boab.

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