Chile ’73: Was Victory Possible?

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Allende’s experience was the most radical attempt to achieve socialism through elections and gradual reforms. What went wrong?

Illustration: Luigi Morris

The “Chilean road” to socialism—that is, the electoral road—is not only the predominant strategy of Chile’s Communist Party and the Frente Amplio, but also a central reference point for reformist organizations like the DSA in the United States.

On September 4, 1970, Salvador Allende was elected president of Chile. The victory of the Unidad Popular (UP) marked the beginning of a pre-revolutionary era—one that would last one thousand days until the coup d’état.

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The election was a political earthquake that surprised every social class in the country. In factories and workplaces, in cities and towns, and even among troops and noncommissioned officers in the barracks, celebrations broke out after Allende’s triumph. Tens of thousands joined the festivities in the streets that night. In business circles, rich neighborhoods, and right-wing political parties, as well as among officers of the armed forces, the fury and tension were palpable.

Confusion reigned among Chilean capitalists after the results were announced. How could they prevent Allende’s victory from being proclaimed by the congress? How could they prevent him from taking office?1 The country’s reactionary forces immediately began planning to keep him from assuming the presidency, or overthrow him if he did.

The counterrevolutionary bloc would be led by an alliance of right-wing politicians and big capitalists, along with U.S. imperialism and its corporations. The CIA and Agustín Edwards (owner of the newspaper El Mercurio) developed two different plans for a coup: a “constitutional” (or parliamentary) plan and a “military” plan. But the first coup failed after the defeat of a military maneuver carried out by a group of extreme-right militants who murdered the army’s commander-in-chief, “constitutionalist” René Schneider. The event shook the nation, and the backlash that ensued would facilitate the proclamation of Allende’s victory by the congress.

Chile was undergoing not only a revolutionary process, but also a counterrevolutionary one that would be decisive in the country’s political dynamics. After Chile’s independence in 1810, its national ruling class, composed of a landed oligarchy born out of conquest and colonization, underwent a process of bourgeoisification through its alliances with imperialist (English and then U.S.) commercial and financial capital. But with nineteenth-century capitalist development, a new national bourgeoisie arose—a partner of both the old oligarchy and the commercial-financial sector. Chilean capitalism developed on the basis of the dominance of foreign capital, i.e. as a semicolony, while the old colonial or precapitalist agrarian structure remained intact.

Chile’s ruling class never hesitated to use force when its interests were threatened, not only against external forces, but also against challenges to the social order coming from the nation’s own exploited and oppressed people. The Left (mainly the Communist and Socialist Parties) was dominated by a pacifist vision and a strategy of institutional “maneuvers” in order to avoid waging battle against big capital.

This strategy was rooted in a theory of Chilean “exceptionalism.” According to this theory, Chile’s “advanced” democracy and democratic traditions (the rule of law and parliamentarism), along with its active civil society and system of stable institutions, constituted an “integral state.” That is to say, conditions made it possible to carry out a revolution “democratically,” thereby avoiding the threat of civil war. The retreat of the armed forces after the Great Depression reinforced the view of a supposedly constitutional military. But this “democratic” regime had outlawed the Communist Party for ten years (1948–58), imprisoning communists in modern Chile’s first detention camp, Pisagua, in the northern desert.

The Bourgeoisie on the Defensive

The failure of the first coup attempt isolated the Right, infusing broad swathes of the masses with a democratic spirit. The Right, facing widespread rejection, was forced to retreat.

Shored up by this sentiment, Allende and the UP established a pact with the Christian Democratic Party (DC), whose votes gave Allende the absolute majority he needed to be proclaimed president. The DC, which had not supported the coup attempt, helped broker the agreement with the UP so that it could moderate tendencies toward radicalization and intensifying class conflict. The result was the Pact of Constitutional Guarantees, in which the DC imposed a “programmatic” agreement on the UP so that the latter would reaffirm its respect for the liberal order. This agreement, without which Allende would not have become president, allowed the DC to enforce certain “guarantees” for the protection of public order: the defense of the state’s monopoly on weapons, the prohibition on unofficial armed forces, and the protection of property rights by limiting the Social Property Area proposed by Allende.

The pact with the DC went hand-in-hand with the dissolution of the Popular Unity Committees (CUP), which were formed to promote the election campaign in factories, neighborhoods, schools, hospitals, and universities. There were, according to some authors, as many as fifteen thousand CUPs. All of them were subordinated to the UP’s National Command, composed of leaders from the main member parties. According to the CUPs’ initial program, they “would be interpreters and fighters for the immediate demands of the masses and, above all, would prepare to exercise people’s power.” Yet they played the role of electoral committees, not organizations of social struggle and action. After Allende’s victory, they were dissolved. Under a revolutionary leadership, these committees would have been the foundation for developing bodies of mass self-organization that could confront any counterrevolutionary coup attempts.

From the Celebration to the Right-Wing Offensive

With the retreat of the disoriented Right, the UP grew stronger. It moved forward with its program of nationalizations (with compensation) of copper and iron mines and the banking system, and it embarked on a path toward nationalizing 91 strategic industries, pursuing an agrarian reform, and so on.

Allende’s victory took place in the context of rising struggles of workers, peasants, and poor people. Although the newly formed government sought to channel these struggles into bourgeois institutions, it created openings for the class struggle, which eventually surpassed the limits of the UP.

Shortly after Allende took office, in December 1970, there was a surge in land occupations in the southern region of Panguipulli, where thirty-four estates were taken over by workers, peasants, and the indigenous Mapuche people. The land occupations forced the government to accelerate its implementation of the agrarian reform.

Meanwhile, there was a similar rise in struggles in the cities. In 1969, there were 977 strikes, while in 1972 there were 3,526. Factory occupations were practically nonexistent in 1969, when only 24 took place, but the number rose to 378 in 1971. In just the first five months of 1972, 299 factories were occupied.

In April 1971, the UP won slim majorities in the municipal elections across the country. After the opposition’s electoral defeat, both the DC and the National Party (PN) sought to change their strategy. The Right adopted a mixed strategy that involved not only political struggle in congress, but also a struggle to take over the streets.

Around this time, the first signs of an economic crisis appeared, with shortages and inflation. The Right seized the opportunity to rear its head again, seeking to win hegemony over the middle classes by combining parliamentary and extra-parliamentary struggles. The Right launched its first major street action with the “march of pots and pans” on December 1, 1971, seeking to engage women in politics.

In by-elections held in January 1972, the DC and the PN ran together, defeating the UP in the provinces of O’Higgins, Colchagua, and Linares. These electoral alliances were the foundations of what would become a strategic coalition.

The right-wing offensive and these first tactical alliances between the DC and the PN, in the context of growing signs of an economic crisis, began to strain the UP. Allende, the Communist Party, and a minority of the Socialist Party (PS), defended the UP’s alliance with the DC and a strategy of “consolidation to move forward.” Another sector of the PS and the Popular Unitary Action Movement (MAPU) wanted the government to “radicalize” the process, breaking out of the bourgeois legal framework to establish “people’s power.” They argued for the establishment of alliances with the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR).

The strain on the UP was a distorted reflection of the growing tensions between its social base—workers, peasants, poor people, and their vanguard, who sought to achieve their revolutionary goals through class struggle—and its leadership, which sought to reform the system and achieve a kind of “state capitalism,” which would limit the people’s growing revolutionary aspirations.

Protests and street clashes increased in the context of economic sabotage, shortages, and inflation, in addition to “strikes” by merchants and truck drivers, which were mobilized and organized by the Right. The opposition’s offensive called for “civil resistance.” In August 1972, 125,000 stores closed after a lockout was called. Fascist brigades blocked traffic with barricades and launched attacks. In October 1972, the truck drivers led a new leap forward in the reactionary offensive: the “insurrection of the bourgeoisie,” shown in the documentary La Batalla de Chile by Patricio Guzmán. Companies were closed, roads were blocked, and acts of sabotage were carried out, resulting in economic chaos and a relative dismantling of the state apparatus. This left the government virtually suspended, with no real ability to respond.

But there was one force that actually managed to resist the reactionary offensive: the self-organized workers, peasants, and poor people. Factory occupations confronted the bosses’ sabotage, transport companies were taken over, and workers and peasants coordinated efforts for the production, exchange, and distribution of all kinds of products, for the defense of factories and neighborhoods, and so on. It was a sign of the great energy and fighting spirit of the working class and the masses. At the forefront of this process were the cordones industriales (literally “industrial belts”), the coordinating committees of worker-occupied factories. These emerged as seeds of dual power and bodies of workers’ self-organization. They were the vanguard of the resistance to the reactionary offensive.

Cordones Industriales: Spontaneity or Conscious Planning?

At their peak, the cordones industriales brought together about one hundred thousand workers throughout Chile, organized in sixty to one hundred cordones from Arica in the north to Punta Arenas in the south. They began to emerge as seeds of workers’ power, with the potential to become organs of mass self-organization.

There was both spontaneity and conscious planning in this dynamic. The cordones did not emerge out of a specific plan developed by a political organization; rather, they were a response by sectors of the working class to the bosses’ offensive. But it is undeniable that thousands of organized workers spearheaded this process. Many were members of the PS and leaders of the party’s National Trade Union Department (DENAS).

The PS thus played a key role. Carlos Altamirano was the main leader of DENAS.2 From the position of “the left of the UP,” using slogans like “advance without compromise,” he arbitrated between the cordonesand the government. After October 1972, the government not only tried to hold back the masses’ revolutionary aspirations, but also increasingly expressed support for the military as one of the pillars of its power.

But beyond incendiary rhetoric, no sector of the PS developed a consistent strategy. Such a strategy would have required seeing the cordones industriales as the potential foundation of a workers’ government.

The PC and the leadership of the PS, along with Allende, constantly sought to limit the cordones’ development. They denounced them for dividing the official unions, and sought to keep them within certain limits. Allende advocated an “institutionalized people’s power” that would be subordinated to the central government.

The MIR, outside of the government coalition, disregarded the cordones at first, then partially adopted the PC’s policy, calling them “divisive.” Finally, the MIR worked within the cordones to place them under the control of its own “communal commands,” which did not, and could not, take on a strategic role. As Franck Gaudichaud put it, “The MIR’s position seems to be that of an organization which, due to its weak structures in the workers’ movement, seems to have decided that the revolution would come from elsewhere.”3 The MIR had no policy for uniting revolutionaries and the workers’ vanguard to form a true revolutionary party.

Workers’ Vanguard and Pre-Bonapartism

The cordones industriales emerged as a response to the counterrevolution, ensuring the production and distribution of goods in a context of high unemployment. They coordinated their work with the Committees of Supply and Prices (JAP), which also grew massively after October. The strength of these bodies slowed the bourgeoisie’s plans for a coup, but in no way defeated them. Neither the cordones nor the JAPs had a strategy to build a workers’ government, so the power they gained in October was handed over to the existing government, in accordance with the policy adopted by the parties of the UP.

It was in this context that Allende’s government began to take on a pre-Bonapartist character, acting as an “arbiter” in response to the growing confrontation between the revolution and the counterrevolution. The Civil-Military Cabinet reflected the government’s weakness in its attempt to hold back this process, over which it was quickly losing control.

The Civil-Military Cabinet had two central policies: the Prats-Millas Plan for the return of occupied companies to their previous owners (more than five hundred of them) and the Arms Control Law, which gave the army “extraordinary” powers. The government and the military could maintain this “truce” because it was based on the repression of the workers’ vanguard and on a Bonapartist strengthening of the state in order to control the situation with an increasingly powerful army.

The bourgeoisie, lacking the strength to impose its will on all of society, took to the streets. The proletariat, for its part, established new bodies of struggle and self-organization, won over other parts of the population, and sought ways to control production and distribution. But the working class failed to go on the offensive to disarm the bourgeoisie and defeat it in the streets. The workers did not centralize their forces in the cordones to take steps toward establishing their own government.

In December 1972, the Civil-Military Cabinet attempted its first offensive against the workers’ vanguard in the cordones, which was resisting the Prats-Millas Plan. Several cordones managed to maintain their occupations, even though a number of companies were returned to their former owners. While the government became stronger, the bodies of self-organization began to retreat, although they would reemerge with renewed strength after another coup attempt in mid-1973.

The Coup Was Not a Bolt from the Blue

The Confederation of Democracy, formed by the right-wing parties and the DC, planned to win two-thirds of the seats in parliament in the elections of March 1973, which would have allowed them to overthrow Allende constitutionally. They failed, however, and then adopted a new strategy of extra-parliamentary struggles and an “institutional blockade,” accompanied by an escalation of attacks by far right groups.

On June 29, one army unit drove tanks to La Moneda, the government palace. This tanquetazo (tank putsch) was put down by the military high command. It was more of a sign of premature despair on the part of a few reactionary officers than a definitive step toward a strategic offensive by the ruling class. But it served to “measure forces.”

After the tanquetazo, hundreds of companies were occupied by their workers, who began to discuss how to confront the danger of a coup, preparing self-defense and distributing weapons. Almost a million people in Santiago (which had just over three million inhabitants) poured into the streets. But in this context, the military gained strength. Allende praised the military leadership as the main force responsible for beating the coup.

The power of the workers and the masses who had risen up again to confront the reaction was held back by Allende and the UP. They called on the people to wait and place their trust in the military and in a “political solution” (i.e. further maneuvers). In failing to launch a strategic offensive, disarm the pro-coup forces, arm the workers, and demand that the government dissolve the Civil-Military Cabinet, the working class and the cordones industriales were unable to use this new favorable situation. After this brief revolutionary resurgence, the strength of the workers and the masses began to disintegrate under the influence of the UP.

From mid-July onwards, the military, which was already the decisive force in the government, began to enforce the Arms Control Law more actively. Occupied companies were raided daily, and troops were sent to repress workers, poor masses, and peasants. In July and August, the military sought to take over, using the UP as a cover. Hundreds of low-ranking naval officers who were planning a defense against a coup were arrested and tortured. Finally, on September 11, 1973, troops led by Augusto Pinochet took over government buildings. Allende escaped to La Moneda, where he committed suicide.

The new coup offensive was launched after the defeat of the workers’ vanguard. It began in late July with the last major lockout, carried out by merchants, truckers, professional associations, right-wing parties, and the DC, which called for the intervention of the military against what it deemed an “unconstitutional” government.

The cordones, a “semi-power” (neither centralized nor armed), did not become the “soviets” of the Chilean revolution. But they could have grown if they had had a strategy aimed at establishing a workers’ government based on bodies of self-organization. All the power they gained in October 1972 and June 1973 began to disintegrate when they handed it over to a government that had been critically weakened by the reactionary offensives and relied increasingly on the military apparatus, the historical protagonist of the counterrevolution.

There was no such strategy among the left-wing parties. The PC and the PS had a policy of collaboration with the parties of the bourgeoisie in the name of a “democratic” (i.e., electoral) road to socialism. Allende’s “democratic revolution” showed that the resistance of the counterrevolutionary forces cannot be defeated via liberal democratic institutions.

Nonetheless, Allende’s strategy is still a reference point for the vast majority of the Left today. In the United States, Allende serves as an example of “how to wield the power of the democratic capitalist state that we now could enter, via [Bernie] Sanders,” according to Ben Beckett. In his view, “perhaps the most important lesson” of the Chilean example is that “like in Chile, Sanders’s ultimate success or failure in the face of these challenges will depend on the extent to which the working class mobilizes to support his positions.”

Chile, however, had more than enough working-class mobilizations. When they saw that “their” government (as they viewed it) was falling apart under the blows of reactionary forces, they established their own organizations to coordinate production, transportation, and distribution. They were repressed by this same government, which was attempting to return companies to their previous owners and then confiscate workers’ weapons in hundreds of raids.

It is not by chance that the various articles published in Jacobin about Allende and the UP barely mention the cordones industriales. The strategy of the “democratic road” shifts the center of gravity toward “finding a way to maneuver in the institutional playing field while maintaining a strong connection with social movements,” as explained by Noam Titelman in Jacobin. From this, he draws the conclusion that in contemporary Chile, a strategy of “democratic revolution” “may be much more similar to that of the Popular Front than that of Popular Unity,” that is to say, a strategy in which the Left joins the center under the latter’s leadership to achieve “democratization” within the institutions of capitalism. It is no coincidence that Titelman’s party, Democratic Revolution, promotes alliances with “progressive” neoliberal parties and the center of the old regime inherited from Pinochet’s dictatorship.

The 1973 coup resulted in the death, incarceration, or exile of 30,000 leftists. Pinochet ruled Chile for seventeen years with an iron fist, crushing the Left and spearheading neoliberal policies worldwide. It took an entire generation for the Left to partially recover. The defeat in 1973 had devastating consequences. The lessons are clear, for those who are prepared to listen.

Translation: Marisela Trevin

Notes   [ + ]

1. At that time in Chile, if no candidate won an absolute majority in the presidential election, the congress had to choose between the two candidates who garnered the most votes. On October 24, 1970, the congress proclaimed Allende’s victory by 135 votes against the 35 of Alessandri’s right-wing force, with the Christian Democratic Party (DC), acting as the first “arbiter” of the election.
2. He and Miguel Enriquez (Secretary General of the MIR) would be at the top of the dictatorship’s “most wanted” list and blamed for the “coup” because of his last political speeches.
3. Franck Gaudichaud, Chile 1970–1973: Mil días que estremecieron al mundo (Santiago de Chile: LOM ediciones, 2016) p. 256. (Our translation.)

About author

Pablo Torres

Pablo Torres

Pablo is a leading member of the Revolutionary Workers Party (PTR) and a member of the editorial committee of our sister site, La Izquierda Diario Chile.

Dauno Tótoro

Dauno Tótoro

Dauno Tótoro is a leader of the Revolutionary Workers Party (PTR) in Chile. He was active in the 2011 students’ movement, and he ran for parliament representing the 10th district in 2017.