Sep 30, 2013
Forty years ago, on September 11, 1973, a military junta headed by General Augusto Pinochet took power in Chile, overthrowing the Popular Unity government led by the Socialist Salvador Allende.
Allende came to power three years before, on September 1970, at the head of an electoral alliance called Popular Unity, whose main members included not only the Socialist Party and Communist Party, but two bourgeois parties.
Worldwide, many on the left hailed Allende’s rise to power as the proof that it was possible to achieve socialism through the ballot box. One slogan from those days that became popular was: “The people united will never be defeated.”
Reality started showing otherwise. The newly elected Allende government might have promised reform and change during a time of economic crisis and a mounting working class movement, but it quickly tried to tame that movement and safeguard the profits of the ruling classes.
By the mid-1960s, the looting of the Chilean economy by the big U.S. companies and the rich Chilean families that owned the mines, industry and banks had plunged the country into a desperate economic crisis. And the working class bore the brunt of the crisis, through mass layoffs and pay cuts.
The Chilean working class was one of the best organized in Latin America, with a long tradition of struggle and building organizations. By the mid-1960s, the number of strikes had increased considerably.
To quiet that movement, the Allende government instituted a series of social reforms. Every child was given one half-liter of milk a day; wages were increased by 35% for white collar workers, by 70% for soldiers and state employees, and by 100% for blue collar workers and farm workers. More than 200,000 jobs were created. The Allende government also carried out a land reform, breaking up some of the big landholdings held by the wealthy.
But at the same time, Allende told the workers, the miners and the peasants that they had to limit their demands in order to not “provoke” the ruling classes or the military.
But the economic crisis worsened. The price of copper, which was Chile’s main export, fell on world markets. Food shortages and inflation grew worse.
The right wing and the far right exploited the discontent of the middle classes. They organized demonstrations by the privileged layers of society hostile to Allende. On October 10, 1972, all of the forces of reaction – the Chilean bourgeoisie, the management of companies tied to U.S. capital, as well as the far right and part of the military – supported a big strike by independent truckers, shopkeepers and professionals, the so-called bosses’ strike against the Allende government.
This triggered a massive counter-offensive by workers and peasants. Workers re-occupied the factories and restarted production. Everywhere workers organized food distribution, setting up their own rationing system. Thanks to voluntary labor, public services, particularly hospitals, kept operating. Self-defense militias were set up to protect working class districts from far-right gangs and the police. Committees of all sorts sprang up everywhere, formed by delegates of local factories and peasant councils. The same thing happened in rural villages, with committee members elected by the villagers. The masses were beginning to feel their strength, and their mobilization was beginning to weaken the bosses' strike.
Instead of resting on what the working class had done, the Allende government declared a state of emergency and called in the army to restore order. Just as the bosses’ strike was beginning to collapse, Allende invited the army's three most prominent leaders to join the government. Since the president and general secretary of the biggest workers’ union, the CUT, were also offered posts in the Allende government, the CUT called on workers to end the occupation of workplaces.
But the working class continued to fight. The courts and the government failed to get workers to leave the occupied factories. The military was unable to take away control of food supplies from the workers’ committees. Many of the committees set up during the October strike continued to operate.
Far-right vigilantes and the army carried out increasing numbers of attacks against the population in the countryside and in working class neighborhoods. The workers and peasants organized and defended themselves against these attacks.
But Allende demanded moderation on the part of the working classes and efforts to increase production that he claimed were necessary to “fight fascism.” The Communist Party launched a petition campaign called “No to Civil War.” The leaders of the Popular Unity government disoriented and thus demobilized the working class.
The army first tried to carry out a coup d’état on June 29, 1973, but failed. In response, Allende sought to placate the army by bringing several generals into his cabinet. The army, backed by the far right, began to take control of entire regions.
Faced with the impending army takeover, the working classes waited in vain for arms and direction from Allende and the other leaders of the Popular Unity government.
On September 11th, the military, under General Augusto Pinochet, carried out its takeover. In a matter of days, tens of thousands of people, workers, peasants, and militants were arrested and tossed in stadiums and vacant property. Many were tortured, thousands were executed. Among those killed was Salvador Allende, who was said to have committed suicide.
In a month of blood and terror, the military dictatorship completely destroyed the complex of organizations which the Chilean labor movement had built through a half-century of struggles and efforts.
Salvador Allende is today celebrated as the victim and martyr of reaction and military violence. But this hides the reality of what happened to the working class. Allende and the reformist parties of the “Popular Unity” government bowed down to the bourgeoisie and the army. They refused to call for a social mobilization that could have become revolutionary. Thus, they led the workers to the slaughterhouse.
Allende, who preferred to commit suicide rather than organize a major struggle of the masses, remains the symbol of the dead end of reformism.