Socialist Worker

‘Chile showed that revolution is possible’

Mario Nain says new struggles are sweeping Chile—and that activists must learn the lessons from defeats in the 1970s

Issue No. 2370

Students march in Chile last year

Students march in Chile last year (Pic: el_ciudadano/Flickr)


New generations of workers in Chile have started to fight neoliberalism in recent years, despite 17 years of the tyrannical Pinochet regime. 

“Neoliberal” policies were first tried out in Chile. The government could bring them in after the 1973 coup because they followed violence, disappearances and enormous repression. 

We are told the defeat of workers’ struggles then proves that we could never have won real change. But that isn’t true. As with the British miners’ strike in the 1980s, the defeat led to the pessimism that followed.

The left in Chile didn’t see the transition to democracy in 1990 as a chance to reject everything Pinochet had stood for. Instead it followed exactly the same trajectory as the Labour Party in Britain—and embraced neoliberalism.

The recent wave of struggle began against Chile’s previous president, the Thatcherite so-called socialist Michelle Bachelet. 

The ruling class in Chile tries to hide its past. Workers have to find their own history. The new militants certainly didn’t start out with socialism on the agenda. In fact students have rejected organised political parties because they can see that the Socialist Party has embraced neoliberalism.

Students were the spark for recent struggles. They protested, demanding free education, renationalisation of the universities and higher taxes for the rich

They managed to wake up the working class. There was a general strike over the students’ demands in August 2011.

Of course we haven’t seen the same level of struggle that existed between 1970 and 1973. 

Revolutionary socialists have to be clear about the lessons of Chile. The military is the armed guard of the bourgeois state. It will act to defend the interests of its ruling class and Western imperialism. 

When I watch the exciting, sad, tragic news from Egypt a lot of what is going on reminds me of Chile in the 1970s. We too had people who thought the armed forces were neutral, just there to protect the nation. 

Our experience reminds us of two key factors for the present.

First, the only social force capable of defeating the ruling class anywhere in the world is the working class.

Second, the working class needs to be organised in a revolutionary organisation.

The consciousness of workers is uneven. So we need to organise the best fighters together, what Antonio Gramsci called the “organic intellectuals”. 

The majority of the party—including its leadership—has to be made of such workers, who have the direct experience of exploitation.

That was the kind of party we lacked in Chile. 

We had a coalition that wanted to reform the system rather than get rid of it. That was our tragedy.

But it isn’t just a matter of having a party with all the right ideas in place. 

Revolution isn’t just about the party teaching workers how to struggle—workers also teach the revolutionaries. 

Workers in Chile were highly organised in the early 1970s. They created cordones, or “industrial belts”. These were elected from factories to decide on production or distribution and they echoed the Russian soviets.

Chile showed that revolution is possible, but tragically it also showed the other side of the coin.

Sometimes it can seem like people will never act. 

But, we live in a very unstable world and our rulers don’t have any answers. 

We will see more upsurges as we saw in Egypt and Chile. 

Mario Nain was a socialist in Chile throughout the UP years, and was imprisoned after the coup. He lectures in south London and is active in the UCU union

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