Chile: 50 years since the election of the Popular Unity government

Allende (Wikimedia Commons)

The fiftieth anniversary of the election of the Popular Unity government takes place on 4 September 1970 and represents an opportunity for the international working class movement to remember what this victory represented and draw vital lessons from the process. The opening of the deepest crisis of global capitalism since the 1930s is already resulting in the emergence of a struggle between the forces of revolution and counter-revolution in many countries. In this situation, the lessons of the experience of the Chilean revolution between 1970 and 1973 are invaluable.

The election of the Popular Unity (UP) in Chile immediately had an international impact amongst the working class. A wave of sympathy and support swept the international workers’ movement. In Chile, the idea that the working class was leading this process meant that the movement had a profound international effect. In Britain and elsewhere it triggered a debate on whether “it is possible to win a parliamentary road to socialism” given that Chile has elected a “Marxist” president and government.
At the time of the coup in 1973, speeches were made by leading trade unionists and others, especially Militant supporters, at the Labour Party conference in Britain warning that the ruling class in Britain could take similar steps if threatened by the election of a radical social government. Following the coup, Aerospace workers in Scotland refused to work on plane engines destined for Chile, and dockers and seamen boycotted Chilean ports and ships.

The election of the UP opened a revolutionary process. Workers built new organisations, like the Cordones Industriales, the JAPs and others, as part of this. Massive reforms were introduced; free school meals, higher wages, land reform, nationalization of banks, copper and other companies. Over 10 million acres of land were redistributed in land reforms. By the time of the coup, 40% of the economy was in state hands. Like all revolutions, an outpouring of initiative and flare was unleashed from the masses. It is not generally realized that the first steps towards the internet were taken in Chile between 1971-3. A project called ‘Cybersyn’ was an early “socialist” internet used to help with the planning the economy and production.

Salvador Allende won the Presidential election with 36.3% of the vote. In Congressional elections, in March, 1973 the UP won 44% of the vote. Its support was increasing despite the economic and violent sabotage by the right wing. When all else failed they resorted to a military coup in collaboration with US imperialism.

Yet how was the revolution begun in 1970 lost by September 11th 1973? Here there are crucial lessons for the working class internationally.

Unfortunately, the main leaders of the UP, in all of the parties that made up the Popular Front, lacked a coherent programme to break with capitalism despite. This was despite the heroic act of Allende of sacrificing his life when confronted with the coup. Yet the reforms the UP government introduced remained within capitalism. By refusing to decisively break with the system and the capitalist state, in particular, the right-wing forces were allowed time to plot, conspire and sabotage, using the fascistic forces in Patria y Liberdad, and preparing the way for the coup, on September 11th.

From the beginning, Allende made a crucial mistake when he agreed to a constitutional pact whereby he agreed not to touch the high command of the state forces. This was to prove fatal. Behind this was a mistaken conviction that the main sections of the military would respect the constitution and accepted a “democratic process”. Others looked to seeking an agreement with the “democratic” wing of the capitalist class. Yet, when their interests are seriously challenged, and there is no other road, the decisive sections of the ruling class and the state machine act to defend their own interests – in this case, by overthrowing the government when all else had failed to defeat Allende

In a doomed attempt to placate reaction, Allende even took General Pinochet into the government a few months prior to the coup.

The ‘cordones’ (organs of workers’ power) increasingly assumed a political role to advance and defend the revolution. One of the most radical was in the industrial district of Cerillos which, among many radical demands, called for “a Popular Assembly to replace the bourgeois parliament”

The working class, were far to the left of the government and its leaders, both of which were dragged into taking more radical steps by the workers and youth. In response to the armed attacks being unleashed by the fascistic Patria y liberdad, as the police and army stood by, workers’ defence squads were formed. The revolution spread to the countryside, where farm workers and peasants occupied land and carried out a programme of agricultural reform. Over ten million acres of land were re-distributed


The ruling class, in conjunction with US imperialism, began to rapidly develop plans for a military coup. Yet, at every stage, the leaders of the PCC (Communist Party) and sections of the PSC (Socialist Party) acted as a brake and tried to hold back the revolutionary process. They argued that the “democratic” bourgeoisie must not be alienated and defended the “constitutionality” of the armed forces.

Despite using very left-wing revolutionary and Marxist rhetoric, the left of the Socialist Party failed to propose specific demands or initiatives to take the revolution forward and to overthrow capitalism. Yet, at the same time, plans were being laid for a reactionary military coup.

These developments led to a polarisation within the UP coalition and splits within its component parties, between the left and right.

Meanwhile, Henry Kissinger, US secretary of state in the Nixon administration, cabled the CIA chief in Santiago: “It is the firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup.

In June 1973, sections of the military, from the tank regiments organised a rebellion against the government – the so-called ‘Tancazo’.It was a premature putsch and was put down by the military, under orders from Allende. General Pratts, a supporter of Allende, who quelled the attempted uprising, was later murdered after the successful coup in September 1973.

The ‘Tancazo’, in June, acted as the whip of counter-revolution and provoked the working class to take further revolutionary measures. The failed June coup was followed by the announcement of a plan for massive nationalisations and by an increasing demand by the working class for arms to fight the threat of reaction.

Yet neither Allende nor the other leaders took steps to strike against the military or to mobilise and arm the workers. Trade union rights were not given to the ranks of the army, no attempt was made to try and organise or to build support among the ranks of the armed forces, many of whom supported the revolutionary process.

The conditions existed to split the armed forces but decisive action was necessary. Yet the leaders of the UP were imprisoned by the idea that a “progressive wing” existed among a section of the ruling class, which was especially emphasised by the Communist Party. This was a policy of respecting “the constitutionality of the armed forces” and of a gradual measured step-by-step programme of reform that, eventually, would establish socialism.

In practice, this ‘stages theory’ allowed the ruling class time to prepare its forces to strike, when the moment was most opportune. It resulted not in the avoidance of a civil war but in the drowning of the revolutionary movement in blood.

Allende adopted a policy of appeasement by taking Pinochet into the government in a doomed attempt to reassure the military and ruling class. He made Pinochet a cabinet minister and even Chief-of-Staff, following the forced resignation of General Pratts by pro-coup conspirators.

Moreover, when sections of the rank and file tried to come to the aid of the revolution and oppose a coup, Allende scandalously supported the pro-coup reactionary hierarchy.

In August, in the naval port of Valpariso, 100 sailors were arrested for “dereliction of military duty”. In fact, they had discovered plans for the coup and declared they would oppose it. In what was referred to as his darkest hour, Allende supported the hierarchy in the navy as it arrested and tortured this group of naval ratings!

Up to one million people demonstrated in front of the balcony of the Presidential Palace, where Allende stood, two days before the Pinochet coup. These workers, youth and students, knowing of the impending coup, demanded arms to defend the revolution. They also demanded the closure of the bourgeois parliament. The left-leaders of the PSC and others promised arms were being stashed and would be distributed when necessary. In reality, nothing was done to arm the working class against bloody counter-revolution.

The coup

Two days later, the plotters struck, as the Chilean and US navies conducted joint exercises off the Chilean coast. On the day of the coup, the trade union federation, the CUT, called on workers to go to the factories and await instructions.

In Chile in September 1973, a mass armed protest and clear appeal for the soldiers to join the revolution was the only prospect at this late stage to save the revolution and defeat the coup. Instead, as the coup unfolded, workers were left isolated in their factories, waiting to be picked off by armed detachments of the army.

Once in power, the military unleashed a bloody era of repression and slaughter. It was a ruthless clinical operation which targeted the most politically conscious and active workers and youth. The military regime lasted until 1990.

In commemorating the tremendous victory of the UP election in 1970 today we need to draw the lessons of the defeat in 1973 to avoid history being repeated.

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July 2020