I remember 11 September 1973. It is deep in the mind of every Chilean. Around 7am we heard on the radio that there was a military uprising. There were only two radio stations functioning. We all tuned to the radio. Allende announced that in the city of Valparaiso the navy had risen up and taken control of the city. But there was no sign of an uprising in the military garrison in the capital, Santiago.
So at first there was hope, but that hope was dashed half an hour later when one of the two radio stations was bombarded. Half an hour after that, things had changed completely. There was definitely a coup going on. Then there was a complete darkness, with only military announcements on radio and television. There was confusion and panic. But you couldn’t go on the street because you would be killed. It was like a black curtain coming down, not knowing what to do. You couldn’t go out at all or you would be killed immediately.
We tried to go out and we found seven bodies just around the corner from where I lived. It was total war-a conventional, well equipped, sophisticated army against a completely disarmed population.
So, for the first few days after the military coup there was complete disarray and chaos. Allende made an appeal saying that workers should be in the factories doing their duty. But this was a meaningless strategy to face an army with. From my area we could see aeroplanes bombarding the centre of Santiago. It was as if they dropped a bomb on Downing Street. Military personnel and tanks were on the street.
The repression was savage, massive, ruthless. If you were a well known person there was no trial, no concentration camp-there was execution on the spot. They persecuted the leaders ruthlessly.
I spent two and a half years in prison. I was not an important political leader. They did that to me, and to hundreds of thousands of others, to teach us a lesson. We were told in the concentration camps, ‘This is a lesson. We have the power to kill you right now because you rose up against the social order that we defend.’
Allende and the Popular Unity government had come to power in 1970. Popular Unity was made up of six parties-the most important of which were the Communist Party and the Socialist Party, which dominated the working class movement in Chile. The 1970s were a period of really intense struggle. The ordinary people of Chile were really politicised when Allende was elected and their expectations were very high.
I remember when Tony Blair was elected in this country after 18 years of the Tories. There were expectations then as well. But in Chile that was magnified three or four times. The Popular Unity government promised to alleviate conditions for the poor. It had a political strategy that became known as the ‘Chilean road to socialism’. Allende was democratically elected within the framework of capitalist democracy and he began to implement very mild reforms. He nationalised companies, mainly those owned by other countries, like the US multinationals such as the ITT telephone company and the mining companies.
I think there were around 150 companies nationalised by the Chilean state. Allende was from the old school of social reform. He was an extremely honest politician, more honest than the people we have here in parliament. He genuinely believed that society could be reformed by parliamentary means. That’s why I feel I have to criticise him.
During the coup he said that he was going to stay in the presidential palace because that was his duty. He had been elected by the majority of the people. At that time the Chilean people also genuinely believed society could be changed by democratic means, through elections and representation of the oppressed in parliament. Later on this was not the case.
So Allende’s reforms did not touch the Chilean bosses. For example, his government provided half a litre of milk for children under the age of seven-a very important move in a poor country. There were also mild agrarian reforms, with compensation for the landowners.
The whole strategy of the Popular Unity government was based within the constitutional means of Chilean society. When we talk about Chilean society, we are talking about a capitalist society.
In 1972, the bosses decided to try to overthrow Allende using political means for the last time. The lorry owners, who owned large fleets of lorries, went on strike.
It was like a pack of cards. The big capitalists tried to paralyse the country to create economic chaos and panic. They were joined by the bosses owning factories, the landowners and then by middle class professionals like doctors, lawyers and university lecturers. The Popular Unity government had no coherent strategy for dealing with the bosses’ offensive. It was paralysed.
But the response of the masses from below gives an extraordinary lesson for every socialist. It was a bread and butter issue-there was no food. There was also the danger that Allende was going to be overthrown. The working class showed a remarkable ingenuity. I remember in October 1972 there was a really important meeting in the shanty town where I grew up. We were told that the bosses were on strike and that food was the priority. There was a general assembly in my neighbourhood and we began to discuss what to do.
It was clear to us that the food supply had to be maintained by any means. We formed a committee to expropriate the food supply from the supermarkets. We also formed a committee of self defence and a committee for education, because the level of education in the shanty town was very poor. These sorts of organisations were called comandos comunales. They were similar to the neighbourhood committees formed in Argentina recently. Within the comandos comunales there were branches dealing with defence, food supply, health.
It was an amazing experience. When you are involved in a revolution you learn very quickly. People began to realise that they were taking control of their own destiny. We were able to maintain order in the neighbourhood more effectively than before because everything was discussed democratically.
This was the response of the shanty town dwellers to the bosses’ offensive. In workplaces, workers formed cordones industriales. They were similar to the soviets in Russia in 1917 or 1905 or to other workers’ committees that have developed in the class struggle. The cordones were already there when the bosses went on strike. But now they organised better, and independently of the trade unions. They took over the land and the factories and ran them with the principle of workers’ democracy. Production and distribution of goods were discussed collectively.
In some areas there was a link between the cordones at the point of production and the comandos comunales. I think there was an embryo of popular power and also an embryo of dual power. On the one hand the workers were building an organisation based on democracy and collective running of society from below, on the other there was the official society.
Without exaggeration it was one of the richest experiences of the Chilean working class. The independent action of the working class and the comandos comunales were really the leadership of the working class at that moment. The Popular Unity government was caught in a straitjacket. They compromised with the bosses even though the bosses aimed to overthrow Allende.
There was a sharp contradiction. The government was telling us that it was our government. But when we marched to the government to ask if it would legalise our occupations the police would beat us up and trample us.
One of the cordones called a big meeting in a stadium which was described as being like the formation of a soviet. The working class did not just operate independently, it also gave leadership to the opposition to the bosses’ strike. In fact, the movement saved the Popular Unity government. Without that movement I think that the Popular Unity government would have been finished in 1972.
It was the highest point of the class struggle not only in Chile, but world-wide in that decade. Workers showed not only their capacity to organise, but they also went beyond the mild reforms that the Popular Unity government had proposed.
While I was in exile I talked with one of the leaders of the cordones in Santiago, who was a member of the Socialist Party. He told me that, during the bosses’ offensive and the reaction of the working class, there was a huge discussion in the Popular Unity government. There were two positions.
The Communist Party took the position was that we should stop and go no further-that was the instruction to all their militants. The right wing of the Socialist Party had the same position, that we should stop the reforms and give back the land and the factories. You can imagine the demoralisation that this caused.
But there was another wing of the Popular Unity, the left wing of the Socialist Party and the Movement of the Revolutionary Left. They said we should advance and deepen the reforms.
But the tragedy is that these were elitist arguments, which were made in conferences. Nobody thought to break completely with the structures of the Popular Unity government, which were incapable of giving an answer to the concrete problems.
At the time I thought, ‘Popular Unity is our government but it is giving back the things that we have conquered.’ But I also felt loyalty to the government that we had elected. There was a dual feeling towards the government. But as the class struggle intensified the consciousness of one section of the class developed. Some workers, mainly those involved in the cordones, went beyond the authority of the Popular Unity government.
One of the cordones in Santiago called for coordinated cordones across the whole region of Santiago, which has a population of four million. They even called for soldiers to defend the cordones.
When the first attempted coup took place in June 1973 there was the same reaction as before-we had to defend the government. And again there was massive activity from below. But, in order to pacify the class struggle, the leaders of Popular Unity said that they were going to control the workers and they even appointed army generals in the government.
The Popular Unity government was more afraid of activity from below than it was of the bosses. How can a revolutionary movement, born in the heat of the struggle, defeat the bosses’ strike but then, in a very short time, allow a military coup to slaughter them? The answer is that the political leadership was weak, confused, demoralised and in disarray.
An alternative developed from below but it was handicapped. In spite of the combativity and creativity of the comandos and cordones, there wasn’t an organisation to coordinate the action of the working class. When workers go into action they do not have a general picture of society. After the rich experience of October 1972, we didn’t have a revolutionary party to generalise that experience.
Because of the pressure of the Chilean bosses as well as US imperialism, the government gave back certain factories that were occupied-they compromised. The revolutionary movement was confused as well. They said the movement existed to reinforce and defend the government. So there was no clarity.
The role of the revolutionary party is to generalise the struggle. If that generalisation happens the practical experience of the working class is richer.. During the uprising in Chile, if there had been a revolutionary party coordinating and generalising the struggle and with the slogans ‘All power to the cordones’ and ‘All power to the comandos comunales’, Chile could have been on the verge of building a new society.
So the absence of a revolutionary party was the tragedy of Chile really. Eventually the movement was defeated in the most savage manner. It was a question of political leadership. We had a political leadership interested in reforming rather than changing society. The Popular Unity government said that the armed forces were going to respect the constitution of the country-that you elect a government for a period of time and when that period of time is over you can elect another one. This foolish faith in the armed forces as the guarantor of the social order was so strong that they put Pinochet in the government.
They said that the role of the armed forces was for external aggression and it would not intervene against workers. But in the 1930s we had a military dictatorship. And the military was used to oppress the people. There was also a paramilitary police force with small tanks, machine guns and all the instruments of oppression. This still existed under the Popular Unity government and continued oppressing the poor.
The poor were told that the army was respecting their government, but at the same time it was killing and beating them. These kinds of argument were on the agenda of every meeting-was the army going to be loyal to the government or was it going to side with the bosses? When the bosses saw in October 1972 that they couldn’t get rid of the revolutionary movement or the reformist government by political means, they went for another option.
The idea that the armed forces are an institution that respects the democratic wishes of a particular nation was disproved really bitterly in 1973.
While we were in prison we were not even allowed to organise by political affiliation. They made everything illegal: unions, strikes, political parties. They shut down parliament. There was a sporadic fightback with guerrilla tactics. Sporadic and insignificant really. The military coup was carried out to kill the revolutionary movement. The Chilean ruling class and the US ruling class realised that Popular Unity couldn’t control the working class and that the working class were building a completely different model. To eradicate this they had to be ruthless.
Even human rights activists were killed. I came out of Chile in 1977, and moved to England. The British government, like any capitalist government, were very happy that there was a coup in Chile. I think one of the Tory ministers went there two or three years after and said it was a pity he couldn’t implement the monetarist policies that were being imposed in Chile. Monetarism is another name for neo-liberalism.
In Chile the tanks rolled over the workers, disarming and persecuting them. These were the special conditions under which monetarism was applied. They privatised everything that had belonged to the Chilean state and increased exploitation to raise profits.
There were Chilean economists who were sent to the US to study economics called the Chicago boys. They were the economic brain of the dictatorship. The British government said these were the policies that they would like to apply in Britain-privatisation, increased exploitation. Chile was the ideal political conjuncture for the international ruling class to apply the economic model that now is called neo-liberalism.
New alternatives for Latin America began with Seattle. Anti-capitalism is a worldwide phenomenon. Developing a revolutionary alternative and a socialist current is a task not only for the Latin American left, but for all the international left. We can see that capitalism is in crisis. The epoch we are living in now is an epoch of fighting back. Even peasants in remote parts of the world are fighting the system.
People can see that the official representatives of the working class-the Labour Party in this country, or the Socialist Party in Chile-are not resisting neo-liberalism.
So the left faces a historic task. Socialism is possible and the centre of gravity for building a new society must be the organised working class. This epoch of fighting back is the epoch to build a revolutionary party and this party has to be at the heart of the struggle. In Chile in 1972 workers showed an alternative but there was no generalisation of the struggle.
The working class has the economic power to paralyse society in one day. But liberation from capitalism also requires an organisation with the strategy of socialism.
1964 Christian Democratic candidate Eduardo Frei beats Salvador Allende in the elections by promising ‘a revolution in liberty’.
1964-9 Frei government buckles to the Chilean rich and reneges on its promises to give land to the peasants and to alleviate poverty. A wave of strikes, protests, factory occupations and of land seizures by the poor in protest at the Frei government.
In 1969 there are 148 land occupations and 1,939 strikes involving over 230,000 workers. In 1970 there are 5,295 strikes involving 316,280 workers.
1970 Salvador Allende is elected, with 36 percent of the vote, and heads Popular Unity coalition government which includes the Socialist Party and the Communist Party. The poor and oppressed celebrate throughout Chile and around the world.
1971 Allende government nationalises the copper mines. US multinationals respond by beginning an economic boycott. In April Popular Unity gets more than half the votes in local elections-an increase by 14 percent.
October 1972 Right wing go on the offensive. Bosses, including lorry owners, organise action to try to bring down the government.
Workers respond by seizing lorries, breaking into supermarkets closed by the bosses, and throwing out factory owners who tried to stop production. Workers set up ‘cordones’- coordinating committees linking together workers in different factories and workplaces.
Allende responds by passing a law giving the army extra powers and inviting top military officials into his government.
June 1973 Attempted coup by the right. It fails, put down by soldiers loyal to the government. Huge mobilisation of workers in response. A government minister tells them to go home. Allende urges calm and stresses his ‘complete confidence that loyal forces will normalise the situation’.
July 1973 Second round of action by the lorry owners. Allende relies on the army rather than workers. But workers take to the streets and continue to set up cordones. On 30 July the Guardian writes, ‘Since 29 June many more cordones have been organised until now they dominate all the access roads into the capital.’
August 1973 Allende welcomes all three armed forces leaders into the cabinet, including General Pinochet who one month later would organise the coup.
11 September 1973 Right wing organises successful coup, aided by Henry Kissinger and the US government.
‘Allende can no longer hope to satisfy the owners of industry and the working class. He will have to choose to side with one or the other. But one side is armed, the other not. And Allende shows no inclination at all to break his pledges to the middle class of a year ago not to ‘interfere’ with the state machine.
Instead he will probably use his influence, and that of the bureaucrats within Chile’s working class based parties and trade unions, to persuade workers to put up with harsh conditions and an erosion of last year’s reforms.
Such a course will tend to create confusion and a lack of direction among many workers. But it is not likely to lead to any great loss in the spontaneous militancy in the factories and mines. Because of that it will not satisfy those who continue to hold real power in Chile. In the past we have seen a number of examples of regimes in some ways similar to Allende’s.
After a period their mass support became demoralised and the government themselves were easily overthrown by right wing military coups.’
Socialist Worker, 20 November 1971
‘The Chile experience is exciting the British people, because their own perspective of achieving socialism is only possible within the constitutional framework, following a path similar to that taken by Chile.’
El Siglo, the Chilean Communist paper 25 March 1972
UNDER PINOCHET thousands were murdered and many more were forced into exile. Thousands were rounded up in the football stadium in Santiago. One of them was folk singer Victor Jara. Pinochet’s thugs broke the bones in his hands and said, ‘Go and play your guitar now.’ Then they killed him.
These are extracts from his last song, written while he was held in the football stadium:
‘There are five thousand of us here in this small part of the city. We are five thousand. I wonder how many were in all the cities and in the whole country? Here alone are the thousand hands which plant seeds and make the factories run.
How much humanity exposed to hunger, cold, panic, pain, moral pressure, terror and insanity? Six of us were lost as if to starry space. One dead, another beaten as I could never have believed a human being could be beaten.
The other four wanted to end their terror-one jumping into nothingness, another beating his head against a wall. But all with the fixed stare of death. What horror the face of fascism creates! They carry out their plans with knifelike precision.
Nothing matters to them. To them, blood equals medals, slaughter is an act of heroism.’
Every working class person will feel the pressure
Two inspiring strikes show the way forward