By Ian Birchall
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Chile 1973: The Other 11 September

This article is over 18 years, 11 months old
Thirty years ago the left wing government of Chile was drowned in blood. Ian Birchall tries to draw lessons from the tragedy.
Issue 277

On 11 September we shall be urged to remember the dead of the World Trade Centre in 2001. Many socialists will also remember another massacre, the Chilean coup of 1973. The important thing is not to mourn, but to learn. The best tribute we can pay to those who died is to draw the lessons from the mistakes they paid for so dearly.

In September 1970 Salvador Allende headed the poll in the Chilean presidential election. He had only 36 percent of the vote, but the opposition was divided and let him in. All round the world the news was greeted with jubilation. After the death of Che Guevara the hope that Latin America would be liberated by Cuban-style guerrillas had faded, but now many on the left began to talk of the ‘Chilean road to socialism’. Allende’s critics referred to him as ‘the world’s first democratically elected Marxist president’, and all too many on the left believed them.

Only a few struck a sour note. In Socialist Worker Steve Jefferys predicted that Allende’s government would mean ‘retreat and compromise’. If Allende should overstep the mark, he added grimly, ‘the same army that has been used to shoot down strikers would not sit by and let the ruling class be voted out of existence.’


Allende was no Marxist, though he could turn on a bit of Marxist rhetoric when required. He was a veteran reformist politician; his economic strategy was entirely Keynesian – he aimed to stimulate the economy without challenging the capitalist framework. He was also wholly committed to parliamentary legality. Before taking the presidency, Allende signed a ‘Statute of Guarantees’, promising he would not use his powers to interfere with the church, the education system, the media… or the armed forces. He would play the game by the enemy’s rules. The other side gave no undertakings that they would respect their own precious legality.

Allende’s initial reforms were moderate – wage rises to stimulate demand, land reform and nationalisation of part (but only part) of the economy. But they meant real progress for the working people of Chile. The regime had enemies at home and abroad from day one – the US government suspended aid and demanded repayment of debts.

For the moment the opposition was in some disarray. Now was the time a determined and audacious leadership would have moved quickly, winning additional working class support and further demoralising the forces of the right. As RH Tawney pointed out long ago, ‘Onions can be eaten leaf by leaf, but you cannot skin a live tiger paw by paw.’ He might have added that if you do try to skin a tiger one paw at a time, it will get very, very cross.

By November 1971 the opposition was regrouping. Hundreds of middle class women, claiming that shortages were making life intolerable, came onto the streets waving empty saucepans. Many brought their maids with them, since they were a little unsure how to handle a saucepan on their own. Demonstrations like this – reminiscent in some ways of our own Countryside Alliance – were the first warning from the privileged classes that they would not let things go too far.

What really frightened the bourgeoisie was not the small redistribution of wealth that had taken place – they could easily live with that. But Allende’s government had given a new confidence to workers, who wanted to go beyond the moderate reforms proposed. During 1971 the number of strikes rose rapidly. Many workers wanted not just nationalisation, but some real exercise of power in their workplaces. And that the bourgeoisie could not tolerate.

The next attack came in the autumn of 1972. Lorry-owners organised a strike – a bosses’ strike. The aim was to bring the country to a halt, cause economic chaos and force Allende to resign or abandon his reforms. In the short term it failed – precisely because workers took things into their own hands and assumed responsibility for keeping the economy going. This alarmed the privileged even more. The stakes were getting dangerously high.

Allende still tried to play fair, balancing both sides rather than relying on the strength of the workers. In spring 1973 copper miners, one of the best organised sections of Chilean workers, went on strike. The government denounced them, making familiar claims that they were already ‘highly paid’. The right tried to exploit the situation – there were reports of women in fur coats collecting money for strikers. But that could happen only because the left deserted the miners.

As the right wing threat grew, workers formed their own organisations, cordones (industrial belts), to link up the factories and organise resistance. The Peruvian Trotskyist Hugo Blanco reported from the Chilean capital ‘Cordon is the term used to refer to the concentration of factories along certain avenues in Santiago… The working class is organised into unions on a factory basis, and these unions are grouped into federations of the various industrial branches… As in every pre-revolutionary process, the masses are beginning to create new organisations that are more responsive to their struggle, though for the moment they are not abandoning the old ones.’

As the bosses sought to undermine the economy and cause shortages, workers had to engage in many struggles to prevent this happening. One of the largest companies created a deliberate shortage of toothpaste. In response, Blanco reported ‘workers resorted to many different ploys to frustrate the boss’s efforts… They would enter a pharmacy full of customers with the boxes open so people could see what they contained. When they were not allowed to do this, they would “stumble” so that the tubes of toothpaste would be out in the open for everyone to see.’


But much more than toothpaste was at stake. The threat of a military coup was more and more widely discussed. But Allende, playing the game by the rules, refused to give any support to opposition elements in the army, or to workers’ self defence organisations. He insisted, ‘There will be no armed forces here other than those stipulated by the constitution… I shall eliminate any others if they appear.’ With Allende still in power, the army embarked on a series of arms searches directed exclusively against left wing organisations committed to defending Allende’s government.

Not once but twice Allende reorganised his government, giving senior positions to generals, in order to show his willingness to work with the military. Far from appeasing them, he gave them an appetite for more. When, on 11 September, the army moved to take power, they were able to kill Allende with impunity. Though there was heroic resistance in isolated areas, there was no centralised focus for opposition – all the left had, to a greater or lesser extent, followed Allende’s parliamentarism and disarmed themselves.

Now the army ran riot. A reporter from the US magazine Newsweek described entering the Santiago morgue and finding a pile of bodies: ‘Most had been shot at close range under the chin. Some had been machine-gunned in the body… They were all young and, judging from the roughness of their hands, all from the working class.’ Some of the violence was random, designed to create a climate of terror. But much of the killing was specifically aimed to eliminate the rank and file leadership of the working class – the shop stewards, union representatives and militants from the cordones – in order to destroy working class organisation for a generation.

Probably 30,000 died, in a country of under 10 million, compared with 3,000 in the World Trade Centre. One massacre does not justify the other – the firefighters, cleaners, caterers and illegal immigrants who died in 2001 had little say in their country’s foreign policy. But the comparison of media treatment reveals massive hypocrisy. The Times (still a serious paper before the advent of Murdoch) declared that ‘the circumstances were such that a reasonable military man could in good faith have thought it his constitutional duty to intervene’.

The US undoubtedly welcomed this setback for socialism in its ‘backyard’. The US had spent a million dollars on training Chilean army officers, and the CIA was there with advice and encouragement. But the point should not be overstated. The US could only intervene on the basis of the balance of forces inside Chile. They were disentangling themselves from defeat in Vietnam, and direct intervention was out of the question.

The main question was the strategy of the Chilean left. But there were two directly opposed lessons that could be drawn. One was that argued in this article, that the left should have moved more firmly and faster, basing itself on workers’ self organisation in the workplaces, and refusing to play by the rules of parliamentary democracy.

But most of the European left drew the opposite message – in Eric Hobsbawm’s words, ‘Allende failed… because it alienated large sectors of the population which it ought to have carried with it.’ Throughout Europe the Chilean defeat led to a swing to the right. Yet the Chilean experience, especially the struggle of workers in the cordones, is an inspiring testimony to the ability of working people to organise themselves. It should never be forgotten.


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