On 11 September 1973, a bloody military coup in Chile ousted the Popular Unity government of President Salvador Allende. Allende was killed defending the Presidential Palace during the coup.
Workers in the factories attempted to defend themselves against the military attacks — but they were not sufficiently organised or sufficiently armed, to stop the onslaught.
The military regime of General Pinochet which followed tortured and killed hundreds of thousands of working-class militants and political activists.
Allende’s Popular Unity (UP) coalition government was elected in 1970. The two main parties were the pro-Moscow Communist Party and Allende’s Socialist Party. Allende considered himself a Marxist.
The Chilean Communist Party had a stagist strategy for achieving socialism in Latin American countries. The first stage was for the workers to defeat the “reactionary feudal sector”, forming an alliance with the “progressive” national bourgeoisie. Then the workers’ movement would proceed to a struggle for socialism.
Yet by 1970 Chile was a fully bourgeois society. Even if there had been an important economic distinction between landlords and capitalists, politically the ruling class as a whole was united against working class or struggle.
The Socialist Party was nominally Marxist. In 1973 the overthrow of the capitalist state was still party policy, but not a policy that the party adhered to in practice.
The Popular Unity government came to power on a wave of radicalisation in 1970, boosted by dissatisfaction with a mild reform programme of a Christian Democrat government. Allende promised more.
The Popular Unity government believed Chilean economic development should take place without reliance on aid, loans or investment from abroad, particularly the United States. It stood in the tradition of the 1938 -1946 Chilean “Popular Front” government of the Radical Party, supported by the Communist Party and the Socialist Party.
Popular Unity’s reforms were far-reaching. By 1973 about 40% of land had been expropriated and turned into smaller plots and co-operatives. Copper and nitrate mines were nationalised, as were the banks and many smaller industries. The government intended to compensate the capitalists but could not afford it! Many nationalisations were on the initiative of the workers.
From day one the US State Department, headed by Henry Kissinger, funded the military and right-wing opposition to Popular Unity. The 1973 coup was actively backed by the CIA.
By 1972 Popular Unity began to be destabilised: the US withdrew credit; financial speculation was rife; agricultural productivity was low; wage strikes continued right through to 1973.
This led to economic crisis and crippling inflation which by 1972 had generated a middle-class and bourgeois reaction threatening the existence of the government.
Instead of building on the mass working-class support for its policies, the government grew less inclined to make concessions to the workers.
In May 1972 a demonstration in Concepcion in support of further nationalisation, was fired upon by cabineros acting on the orders of the Communist Party mayor.
Instead of acting against the Chilean financiers, the government encouraged wage “restraint” in order to “conquer” inflation.
Allende believed a loyal “constitutional” majority among the officers would not allow a military coup.
In August 1972 the government sent in the police against a shopkeepers’ strike in Santiago to try to get them to open up (many of them had been hoarding and conducting black market trading). This prompted violence from the fascist opposition.
In October 1972 the truck owners went on strike against a proposed state-controlled truck company. The strike spread to many other small businesses. In Parliament the opposition tried to impeach four government ministers.
During the middle-class strikes the Chilean workers tried to keep the factories operating, to defend the government and to try to stop the worsening of shortages. But Allende did not build on this support.
Workers’ councils known as cordones were formed in several areas of the country. They saw their goal as keeping production going during the crisis, and defending the gains the workers had won under Allende.
Armed detachments were organised to meet the right-wing threat but were nowhere near widespread enough to save the Chilean workers from the savagery of the army.
Large sections of the Socialist Party supported the cordones, but the Communist Party was very hostile to them, seeing them as a challenge to their hegemony in the trade unions.
In the March 1973 legislative elections, Popular Unity increased its share of the vote to 45% (from 36% in 1970). By May the right was out in force on the streets
Now the miners struck against the withdrawal of the sliding scale of wages. Under this system — won in the first months of the government — wages were pegged to inflation and would rise automatically with the cost of living.
An attempted coup led by a rebel section of the military took place in June 1973. It was not supported by the whole of the military, only because they had not yet fully formulated their policy.
The government still enjoyed massive support amongst the working class. Only five days before the final coup a million people demonstrated in Santiago to celebrate the third anniversary of Allende’s election.
In the event, apart from small armed detachments of workers, the Chilean proletariat was defeated with minimal fighting and then subjected to a terrible butchering.
There followed 16 years — until 1989, when the junta was forced into an election — of the viciously anti-working class Pinochet government.
Marxist socialists have had many debates about the lessons of the coup. They have pointed out that Allende’s refusal to arm the workers was decisive in the defeat of the working class. This is true. But it was only the last act in a tragedy at the core of which was the Popular Unity government’s decision to try to conciliate the capitalists, trying to convince them to go along with its reforms.
As the elected government, the UP thought they had the power — the armed forces. That is why they did not arm the workers. They learned that when it came to it, the capitalists, not parliamentary democracy, had the ultimate loyalty of the armed forces.
The working class of Chile paid for Allende’s weakness, confusion and vacillation with many tens of thousands of proletarian lives.