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Popular democracy in revolutionary Chile

This article is over 14 years, 10 months old
History is rich with examples of movements from below creating a new type of society. Mario Nain winessed the rise of such popular power during Chile’s revolutionary years
Issue 2154
A march by supporters of the Cordones Industriales in the Chilean capital Santiago demand the creation of popular power
A march by supporters of the Cordones Industriales in the Chilean capital Santiago demand the creation of popular power

Between 1970-3 Chile entered a period of revolution. Workers began to take control of factories, the peasants were seizing the land and a vast movement of the oppressed was making its mark on shaping a new society.

The revolution was crushed by a military coup in 1973, but for a brief time a different type of society was emerging – one based on mass democracy.

Mario was a young activist at the time. He recalls how new organisations emerged out of the struggle for change, and the effects that popular democracy had on transforming people’s lives.

“We don’t fight the rich simply on wage increases anymore. We know we have the right not just to occupy their factories, but to take them over and get them producing, with the workers running the place themselves.”

This revolutionary language, published in the newspaper Chile Hoy on January 1973, belongs to Maria Farias Godoy. She was one of the protagonists of an astonishing development of the class struggle that swept Chile between 1970 and 1973.

Such was the radicalisation of workers, students, peasantry and shanty town dwellers, that in the course of this intense struggle they forged a gigantic combative organisation to fight the rich and the powerful in Chile.

This movement had been growing for many years, but it reached its highest point when the most politically conscious sector of the Chilean working class formed the “Cordones Industriales” – coordinating committees linking together workers in different factories and workplaces.

The Cordones laid the foundations of a workers’ democracy. But the movement engulfed all the oppressed. In the countryside, peasant committees began to seize land. In the cities, rebellious youths painted the walls to announce the dawn of a new world, or the approach of the reaction – usually in the form of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

This movement touched the most oppressed in our society, the indigenous Mapuches Indians.

The Mapuches, who suffered centuries of subjugation and racism, began to demand their socio-cultural rights as a distinctive people within Chilean society.


In the past, all of Chile looked down at them. Now there was a growing sense of pride of indigenous peoples.

The popular singer Victor Jara submerged himself into the Mapuche and popularised their culture. Through his powerful lyrics, the oppressed began to tell the story of their long struggle for freedom.

In 1970 Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government was elected.

Allende’s government, an alliance that included the Socialist and Communist parties, brought in a policy of nationalisations, which directly challenged the bosses.

Chile’s ruling class, which was aided by US imperialism, used every weapon available to it to stop his reforms – from terrorism to the assassination of high-ranking generals loyal to his government.

Allende sought to find a compromise with these forces of reaction, while at the same time attempting to dampen down the growing aspirations of the movement that brought him to power. This compromise would eventually lead to his overthrow and death at the hands of a coup headed by Augusto Pinochet.

But for a period a new society was emerging in our country. The movement from below reached new levels as it mobilised first in defence of the government, then grew into organisations that began to run society.

This transformation began in October 1972 when the bosses, including the lorry owners, organised a “strike” to try to bring down the government by economic strangulation.

The bosses assembled huge fleets of lorries in key strategic junctions up and down the country in order to cause maximum chaos and disruption.

As news of the bosses’ action spread, I attended an important meeting in the shanty town where I grew up. We organised a general assembly in my neighbourhood and formed a committee to expropriate the food from the supermarkets.

We also formed a committee of self defence and a committee for education and health. These organisations were called “Comandos Comunales”.

Workers seized lorries, broke into supermarkets closed by the bosses, and threw out factory owners who tried to stop production.

They took over factories and other enterprises, seized their assets and ran them on the principle of collective workers’ democracy.

This was one of the greatest mobilisations of our class. Workers, students and shanty town residents threw themselves into massive voluntary work to distribute food to our people, and keep open the gates of hospitals and schools and other essential services.

The Cordones were already established when the bosses went on strike, but now they became better organised.


Production and distribution of goods were discussed collectively. They even organised to keep raw materials flowing and the factories running.

The Cordones Industriales grouped and organised the working class over and above their particular political affiliations.

This revolutionary organisation sprang out of the great need to create a more effective and combative response to a bourgeois offensive, and the failure of Allende to confront the growing reaction.

These revolutionary years marked some of the finest moments of our class. It defeated the bosses’ strike by keeping the economy running and, in the process, challenged the dark alienated life that exists under capitalism.

People began to realise that they were taking control of their own destiny. We were able to maintain order in the neighbourhood because everything was discussed democratically.

A new consciousness was beginning to emerge. A sense of freedom enveloped our spirits and we felt that were affirming ourselves as a human beings. The fruit of our labour now belonged to us, not the bosses who robbed us.

From that time on, we began looking at each other as brothers and sisters, not as atomised and isolated individuals.

During those short years of rebellion we were embarking on a complex journey of class awareness, where we were collectively shaping the course of liberation.

Finally, under the cover of darkness, terror descended on 11 September 1973. Allende announced on the radio that there was a military uprising. It was his last message.

The tanks rolled in and extinguished, for a while, the flame of liberty.

A state of siege was imposed on our people which lasted for 17 years. Countless people were imprisoned and suffered the most barbarous physical and mental torture in concentration camps across the country. I spent two and half years in one of these camps.

More than 3,000 people “disappeared”.

The coup crushed that movement for change, but it could not wipe out the memory of that time when we planted the seed of workers’ power.

This movement has begun to remerge across Latin America, while history has passed judgement on Pinochet’s tyranny.

The global capitalist system today is undergoing one of its deepest structural crises since the 1930s. The lesson from Chile is that we cannot compromise with the old order.

In those revolutionary years we began to take control of the factories, neighbourhood and countryside. We proved that ordinary people are capable of taking control of their lives as they struggle to change the world.


  • 1969-70 – A wave of strikes sweeps the country. Peasant committees spearhead land occupations.
  • 1970 – Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity coalition elected.
  • 1971 – Allende nationalises the copper mines. US multinationals place an economic boycott on the country.
  • October 1972 – Bosses attempt to bring down the government. Allende grants the army extra powers and invites top military officials into his government.
  • June 1973 – A coup is put down by soldiers loyal to Allende. Workers mobilise to defend the government but are told to go home.
  • July 1973 – Bosses launch second “strike”. Workers’ movement grows.
  • August 1973 – Allende invites General Pinochet into the cabinet.
  • 11 September 1973 – Pinochet organises a coup. Allende dies during the army siege on the presidential palace.
  • 1973–1990 – Pinochet runs Chile with an iron fist. The country becomes a vast experiment in neoliberalism.
  • 1990 – Popular movement forces Pinochet to call elections and he is removed from power.

    Pinochet dies in December 2006 after escaping a trial for human rights abuses.

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