As part of Marx21’s World in Revolt series, Luke Pickrell delves into Chile’s history — from colonization to social democracy, from dictatorship to neoliberalism — right up to the explosive struggles of the present day. To read the next instalment of the series, see M. N. Dahan’s article on the struggle in Lebanon here.
Protests began in Chile during the middle of October following the announcement of a 30 peso fare increase for the national metro service. In response, students staged fare evasion campaigns (evasiones masivas) using the slogan ¡Evade! and occupied dozens of metro stations. The protests have since grown in size, embracing long-standing resentment over income inequality and the privatization of resources such as education, electricity, and water, as well as demands for the resignation of billionaire president Sebastián Piñera. City walls have been covered in various slogans, including Rosa Luxemburg’s famous dictum declaring “socialism or barbarism.” Many demonstrators wave the flag of the indigenous Mapuche people. No one waves the flags of the so-called “left” political parties.
Various reports from the ground paint a compelling picture of class struggle in one of the most unequal countries in Latin America, where 1% of the population takes about a third of all income, and controls some 26% of the total wealth. As Vijay Prashad explains in a weekly report from Tricontinental, “Chile has the highest inequality rate amongst the countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).”
Its billionaires scatter money into the pockets of all the major political parties, generating the view that democracy is about raising money from the major capitalist blocs rather than about raising the aspirations of the people into policy. The Angelinis, Paulmanns, Cuetos, Solaris, and Luksics might support different political fractions, but at the end of the day – whoever wins – these billionaires and their conglomerates are the ones that set the policy and benefit from it. That is why over a million people came onto the streets to sing Victor Jara. They want the right to live in peace, the right to control their lives.
By design, the neoliberal policies pushed forward under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet and continued by center-left coalition governments, including participation from the Socialist Party (PS) and Communist Party, have increased the wealth of Chilean and international capitalists while immiserating the masses. Today, protesters chant, “it is not 30 pesos, it is 30 years,” alluding to the decades of hardship brought by capitalism in the post-dictatorship era.
The national police force (Carabineros de Chile), at least some of whom snort cocaine before attacking protesters, have killed dozens of people including 29-year-old Abel Acuña. After Acuña collapsed, police shot at paramedics attempting to save the young man. The brutality of the Carabineros includes the decapitation of two Community Party university professors, alongside dozens of rapes and hundreds of mutilations. In less than a month of protests, over 180 had been completely or partially blinded by pellets or tear gas canisters shot at the face, and the count has since risen to almost 300. Water cannons used against crowds contain chemicals that leave horrendous damage to the skin. 79 have died from the gas used. A University of Chile analysis of the “rubber bullets” which have injured close to 1,000 found them to be metal and only 20% rubber. President Piñera — whose declaration of a national emergency (the first since Pinochet) due to “war with a powerful and implacable enemy” sent the army into the streets — has “condemned” the police abuse in a cynical attempt to calm the protesters. While police fired into crowds, Piñera was photographed eating expensive pizza at a birthday party in one of Santiago’s wealthiest districts, prompting the question “did you declare a state of emergency to eat in peace?”
The history of the class struggle in Chile is ripe with lessons for the struggle ahead. This article is not a complete summary of Chilean history, and will focus mostly on a critique of democratic socialism, a term that has become something of a floating signifier in common discourse and increasingly popular in the United States over the last few years. In this case, I define democratic socialism as a reliance on constitutional and parliamentary means to achieve gradual gains for the working class while avoiding conflict with the capitalist (though assumed neutral) state. Those looking for a more in-depth exploration of Chilean history, particularly of the period between 1970-1973, should watch Patricio Guzmán’s illuminating documentary series, The Battle of Chile (La batalla de Chile), alongside Mike Gonzalez’s chapter in Colin Barker’s edited collection Revolutionary Rehearsals, and his essay in the journal International Socialism. (The three-part documentary series by Guzmán, in particular, cannot be recommended highly enough). What follows draws heavily from all of the above sources.
The Birth of a Working Class
When Marx wrote that capital first entered European markets “dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt,” he was primarily describing the extraction of riches from various mines in the newly-conquered Americas. The blood, of course, mostly belonged to the enslaved native populations. After being marked with a royal brand and the initials of their master, these slaves were worked so hard that, according to the journals of more sentimental observers, “For half a league around these mines and along a great part of the road one could scarcely avoid walking over dead bodies or bones, and the flocks of birds and crows that carne to fatten themselves upon the corpses were so numerous that they darkened the sun.” Chile’s modern working class, as well as its modern bourgeoisie, has its roots in these pre-industrial catacombs.
Mines made up the backbone of the country’s economy (by 1900, a staggering 97% of state revenue came from sodium nitrate — “white gold” — mining), and miners formed the country’s first trade unions and helped create the Chilean Communist Party in 1922, and the Socialist Party in 1933. In 1973, a strike by workers at the world’s largest copper mine put immense pressure on the Allende’s Popular Unity government; a decade later, those same miners would strike against Pinochet’s dictatorship.
Elected in 1920, president Arturo Alessandri Palma promised liberal reforms to workers and their political representatives in the name of “evolution to avoid revolution” (the Russian Revolution, one must remember, had taken place just three years prior). Yet, Alessandri’s true interests lay in appeasing the needs of capital and the conservative right-wing, as demonstrated by the Marusia massacre (Masacre de Marusia) in 1925. Importantly, at no point during the 20th century did the Communist and Socialist parties of Chile advocate a break from the bourgeois state and the underlying structure of the capitalist economy. Following Stalin’s rise to power and the solidification of “socialism in one country” in the Soviet Union, the existing left parties looked to work within the existing system through political alliances and backroom deals. Socialism would come through political revolution at the stop of society, not social revolution led by the working class.
The Rise of Allende and Unidad Popular (UP)
Salvador Allende’s election was an outgrowth and expression of the existing class struggle among millions of workers. In 1964, Eduardo Frei of the Christian Democratic party — whose belief in “social capitalism” through Christian ethics betrays its confused, if not downright deceptive, politics — defeated Allende to become President of Chile. Essentially a more conservative version of Allende, Frei was blasted by the left as too timid in his reforms and by the right as too extreme. Now overlooked in favor of what would come later, broad swaths of peasants, urban migrants, and students were increasingly active in the years leading up to 1970, when revolution seemed possible in cities across the world.
Teased by a few of the policies under Frei, including several related to land distribution, disillusioned voters swung further left in 1970, electing Salvador Allende, leader of a six-party coalition, Unidad Popular (Popular Unity, or UP). Perhaps the Socialist Party could do something the Christian Democratic Party could not. With deep roots in the working class, Allende’s election, along with the subsequent nationalization of the American owned copper mines, marked a turning point in the minds of the Chilean ruling class. It was never primarily Allende who the capitalist class and right wing-opposition feared, but the growth of workers’ power and organization outside the confines of the state (and against the best efforts of Allende himself). When the coup came, it was because Allende proved no longer capable of containing the struggle and meeting the needs of capital.
The Statute of Guarantees
Allende was known for his declarations of “popular power” — in reality, a declaration of willingness to work alongside the interests of capital. This willingness was epitomized by his signature on the secret ‘Statute of Guarantees’ — a promise that UP would, as described by Mike Gonzalez, “respect the state and its structures and leave intact all those instruments which the bourgeoisie had evolved to defend its class interests — the education system, the Church, the mass media and the armed forces.” In reality, Allende wanted to bring about reforms, but only within the confines of a capitalist economy, and thus tried to appease the interest of all parties. In fact, he went so far as to blame the left for the country’s instability. He was quick to condemn squatting by peasants and declare national emergencies when strikes got out of hand.
Workers’ Power and Organization
Much of the history covering Chile’s so-called revolutionary period indulges in surface-level explanations for the rise of the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, blaming the United States’ CIA and gunboat diplomacy for destroying Allende’s supposed radical agenda. Little is said about the working people themselves. I previously called the work of Guzmán and Gonzalez illuminating because both documentarians reveal the extent to which real potential lay not in Allende and his UP government, but in the grassroots organizations of the workers, in particular the cordones (“industrial belts”) between industries that bypassed the Communist Party-dominated trade unions. According to Gonzalez, the cordones created their own declarations, which included demands for “workers’ control of production and the replacement of parliament by a workers’ assembly.” Importantly, the cordones declared “support for President Allende’s government insofar as it interprets the struggles and mobilisations of the workers.”
In 1972, when a so-called “bosses strike” was implemented to further destabilize the country and unseat the UP, the working class organized to keep the economy afloat. As Gonzalez describes in Revolutionary Rehearsals
At the EI Melon cement factory, a strike already in progress was immediately brought to an end and its workers returned to work. At the Perlak textile plant, to compensate for the lack of milk from the countryside, the workers organised a high-nutrition soup for their children. The Polycron workforce took their textiles to the working class areas and sold them directly. Raw materials and finished goods began to be exchanged between factories, but also between workers and peasants.
Workers guarded against sabotage, kicked out their bosses, volunteered to organize food distribution and transportation, and continued to show up to work. Local residents from the country’s poorer districts (distinct from the more conservative middle class population) forced shop owners to open stores. Doctors reopened shuttered hospitals. Defense committees were formed. Gonzalez’s assertion in Revolutionary Rehearsals that if not for the working class, “the bourgeoisie would have succeeded in its campaign,” reminds one of the Spanish workers rushing to arm themselves and form barricades against Franco’s fascists despite the imbecilic and cowardly reassurance of the Spanish Republic.
Failure of the Parliamentary Road to Socialism
In the months leading up to his death, Allende led an essentially impotent government with little to no control over any of the important sectors in Chilean society; true power lay further to the left, in the hands of the cordones, and to the right, in the guns of the military. But Allende himself refused to admit that the center could not hold and ignored warnings from his supporters that a coup was imminent. He maintained his faith in the constitution, the armed forces, and the bourgeois state until the end. The army, under Allende’s oversight, stripped the workers of their few remaining weapons only months before the coup. As Gonzalez states in Revolutionary Rehearsals, “the working class was prepared for the final phase of the class struggle — but its leadership was not.” The UP was committed to appeasing a long-ago disinterested rightwing. The official Communist and Socialist parties, while committed on paper to revolution, had long since committed in practice to working with the bourgeoisie.
The French Jacobin Louis Antoine de Saint-Just once remarked that “those who make revolutions by halves do nothing but dig their own tombs.” Allende, writes Gonzalez, thought he could play something of a “referee” within the class struggle, never daring to favor one side of the conflict over the other. In the end, he and his government hamstrung the workers’ movement — the only force that could have defended Chile from Pinochet’s coup — and in so doing spared the country from decades of dictatorship. Ultimately, by disarming the workers, attacking the strikers, and empowering the military, Allende and his democratic socialist ideology helped dig the grave of the working class movement.
One week before the presidential palace was bombed, nearly one million people took to the streets in commemoration of the third anniversary of Allende’s election. Their militant presence, writes Gonzalez, “was testimony that they were ready to fight, to defend their class against an armed bourgeoisie. But there was no revolutionary leadership to grasp that historic responsibility and coordinate and arm the mass workers’ organisations.”
The Chilean workers understood that the class struggle does not stand still. They were beginning to organize themselves independently, and were clamoring, unsuccessfully, for the ability to defend themselves. The situation was pregnant with the possibility of the new. They needed, again in the words of Trotsky, to “break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, [and] sweep aside their traditional representatives.” Even situations of dual power, where workers collectively start to run aspects of society alongside the state, can’t last forever. Once free from its traditional representatives, the working class needs its own decisive leadership (a revolutionary workers’ party) in order to ensure its own demands and overthrow capitalism (this, of course, is a much larger conversation).
Neoliberalism and Dictatorship
The events of September 11, 1973, are widely known; needless to say, they fit the definition of a Generals’ Coup. A career military man, Augusto Pinochet (in yet another move indicative of Allende’s misplaced confidence in the army) had been appointed Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces by Allende that August. Ultimately, such a grand display of brute force was the last stop in a longer line of previous attempts to oust Allende. A right-wing controlled Parliament was not enough (the opposition had hoped to impeach Allende following elections that May), and the working class had organized to overcome the bosses strikes of 1972. Monetary support to the opposition from the CIA and KGB was twice unable to swing elections. Unlike Allende, the right-wing opposition wasn’t afraid to shred the constitution when the cards were down.
With a military junta in power, economists trained under conservatie economist Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago — the so-called “Chicago Boys” — were put in charge in the economy and began what many consider to be the world’s first test of neoliberal economics. Unions were banned, social security and state-owned enterprises were privatized, and capital was generally given free rein. Wages decreased, pensions were slashed, and social spending was cut. Massive loans flowed in from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and foreign corporations, including Dow Chemical and Firestone Tires, returned to exploit the workforce. By the end of the dictatorship, some 45% of the country was in poverty while the top 1% saw their income increase by over 80%. In short, neoliberalism, a tool of class warfare and wealth accumulation, was a resounding success.
The human cost of the dictatorship was immense. Thousands were killed (including hundreds at the hands of the notorious Caravan of Death), tens of thousands were tortured and disappeared, and hundreds of thousands were exiled. Patricio Guzmán’s more recent film, Nostalgia de la luz (Nostalgia for the Light), follows the search for the remains of loved ones in Chile’s vast Atacama Desert. Even when Pinochet had stepped down as dictator in 1990 and Chile returned to a bourgeois democracy, he continued to play a role, including in drafting the constitution that legally cemented neoliberalism into the heart of the state. Pinochet was given a military funeral upon his death in 2006, and the Chilean national flag was draped over his coffin In Spain, supporters of fascist dictator Francisco Franco honored Allende, a man who took over 300 charges of human rights violations with him to the grave.
Mass Movements, False Promises
On October 25th of this year, more than a million people demonstrated throughout Chile — including the cities of Santiago, Concepción, Antofagasta, and Valparaíso — against President Piñera. “The dictatorship divided us, but here you can see everyone, Mapuche [indigenous group], feminists, migrants, sexual diversity, young children. It’s everything,” voiced a protestor to Al Jazeera News. Many spoke openly about a new generation of post-dictatorship youth — epitomized by the high school student who first occupied metro stations — bravely keeping the revolutionary tradition alive. Once used by the middle class against the Allende government, cacerolazo protests — the cacophonous banging of empty pots and pans — have returned with a radical vengeance. Three general strikes have taken place within the past two months.
In the general strike of November 12th, called by the Unidad Social (Social Unity) roundtable of unions, hundreds of thousands of workers and supporters marched in cities across the country. The strike affected a range of industrial and public sector workplaces, and was particularly strong in health, education, the port workers, and some of the important copper mines. A march of 300,000 in Santiago, including many public sector workers, was set upon by police. In other areas Mapuche people led the demonstrations, and there were roadblocks set up throughout the country, reminiscent of the struggles in Ecuador and Bolivia that brought down governments there twenty years ago.
The involvement of unions has gone farther in Chile than in many of the other rebellions now happening around the world, and can provide an example of their social weight. When a third general strike was called by the CUT (the main union federation) for November 26, it was partially extended for 48 hours by the Unidad Social group of unions and the port workers from the 25th through the 27th “in support of the social movement that is developing across the country.” The talk of an indefinite strike against the government has not been taken up by the CUT, and would need to be built from the bottom up. This is where the absence of a significant organized left is especially felt. If the “leaderless” movement leaves a vacuum filled by the existing union bureaucracy (often linked to the Communist and Socialist parties otherwise rejected by the movement), it could put a break on the radical initiatives coming from the streets.
Several of the demonstrations have been nothing short of breathtaking in their sheer numbers as well as the political quality and creativity shown by the protesters. In the coastal city of Chañaral, protesters made their own fake tank in a mocking gesture towards the police and army. Braving further mutilation, dozens of protesters with eyes lost to police munitions marched in front of the presidential palace. In late November, a feminst collective staged a choregoraphed dance in condemation of attacks on women (access to legal abortions in Chile is heavily restricted) and in honor of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. In Santiago, thousands of protesters sang “El derecho de vivir en paz” (“The right to live in peace”) by the Chilean musician Victor Jara. Now a martyr, Jara was tortured and publicly mocked (asked to play the guitar with broken fingers) before his execution by the Pinochet junta. Decades later, the young and the old erupt with his songs on the streets.
With protesters undeterred by the murderous intentions of the armed forces, the Piñera government, limping along at a 9% approval rating, has gradually shifted tactics. Alongside the introduction of new bills to bolster the military and declare a semi-permanent state of emergency, the capitalist state now sheds crocodile tears and sings promises of what essentially amount to sweet nothings. Piñera, of course, reversed the fare hikes, but only when the movement had gone far beyond that. A cabinet reshuffle got rid of the controversial Andrés Chadwick (Piñera’s cousin and a Pinochet supporter) as interior minister, but the crowd continued protesting. An already growing movement against the privatized pension scheme which left the elderly impoverished while enriching companies, became a major demand in this movement. Piñera responded with a small tiered increase to pensions (up to 50% more to those 80 and over, in a country where the average life expectancy is 79 and lower for the poor) to go into effect in two years within the same privatized system. Similarly, promises of a guaranteed monthly wage, and cheaper medicines were deemed too little and too late.
The cherry on top of proposed government reforms — and something heralded as a complete, game ending success by the corporate media — is the promise of a new “100% democratic” constitution to be decided on through a plebiscite in April. The old constitution needs to be abandoned, but this proposed process takes the initiative from the movement and people’s assemblies and is run completely through existing parties largely abandoned by the struggle. It will take years to implement and approve, requires a two-thirds approval from congress for essential points, and seems purposefully designed to channel protest back within the well-known confines of the state. Not only did the Socialist and other center-left parties join with the right-wing UDI (Unión Demócrata Independiente) party to give their support to the plebiscite and the so-called “Agreement for Peace and a New Constitution,” but the younger Frente Amplio (Broad Front) which had helped organize early demonstrations, approved as well, prompting over a hundred resignations. With an eye on the movement, the Communist Party declined to support the plebiscite.
It is clear that protesters distrust the government and their promises of “democracy” and “lessons-learned.” As during the Allende years, a growing number of workers are once again disillusioned with the available political parties, including the reformist Communist Party and Socialist Party. As demonstrated in previous revolutionary moments — the Soviets in Russia; the Cordones in Chile; the workers’ Shorahs in revolutionary Iran; and Solidarity in Poland — the self-organization of the vanguard of the working class is crucial. With this in mind, one turns with interest to the latest manifestation of spontaneous organizing in Chile: the Cabildos, or assembly of neighbors, of which thousands are thought to now exist across the country. Especially in the south significant participation of indigenous groups are joining the lively discussions on how to go beyond the current representative democracy. Other local bodies, including the Emergency and Protection Committee (Comité de Emergencia y Resguardo), the Human Rights and Legal Committee (Comité de Derechos Humanos y Jurídico), and the Coordination and Articulation Committee (Comité de Coordinación y Articulación), are working in conjunction with various unions. It is bodies like these that should take on the project of imagining a new constitution, but just as important, fight for immediate demands people can feel now. This will keep the movement alive. A key question in Chile is how much these assemblies, in conjunction with the Unidad Social or other methods of coordination, can stay controlled by the rank and file and build their power. If this starts happening, the next question will be self-defense, including incorporating the rank and file of the army in independent assemblies to weaken the options of the generals.
The Path Ahead
In a recent piece for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Samuel Brannen describes the current period as an “Age of Leaderless Revolutions” in which the promises of capitalist governments have failed “to meet expectations of dignity and betterment.”
Protesters are frustrated with perceived corruption and economic inequality. Often young, angry, and urban, protesters are not an organized opposition proposing the substitution of their party or ideology for an existing one but a leaderless movement demanding their voices are heard. In some cases, protesters’ demands are clear; more often they are muddled. Across the board the aggrieved want change in systems that feel outdated, broken, or nonresponsive.
Brannen does not point the finger at capitalism; instead, he obfuscates reality behind talk of “ruling elites and political institutions.” He does not advocate for the completion of a communist revolution in the line of Karl Marx, C.L.R. James, or Mike Gonzalez; instead, he hopes the popular movements will be “co-opted” for good.
But co-optation is exactly how revolutionary movements die. Protesters must continue to extricate themselves from the existing political apparatus and form their own democratic organizations. The attempt at a constitutional referendum is a trap designed to bring protesters back within the political arena defined by capitalist realism, in which there is no “logical” or “reasonable” alternative to commodity production based on profit instead of social need.
‘A Fool’s Errand’
They say the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only at dusk. There can be no denying the power of Allende’s final address to the world before allegedly killing himself with a gun gifted by Fidel Castro (“…I will pay the people’s loyalty with my life…”). At the same time, his last words are exemplary of his strategy of class-collaboration (“…my words do not have bitterness but disappointment”), loyalty to the state (“…who gave his word that he would respect the Constitution and the law and did just that…”), and proclivity towards abstraction. Allende thanks the workers (“…I want to thank you for the loyalty you always had…”), seemingly unaware of his ultimate role in the history of class struggle.
One cannot deny the broad support the UP received from the workers, peasants, students, and the most vulnerable in Chilean society. By no means a naive man, Allende rightfully feared his internal and external enemies. But crucially, as dictated by his reliance on the bourgeois state, he also feared his greatest and most powerful allies: the workers. Instead of encouraging grassroots organizations that developed irrespective of his wishes, Allende took their weapons and defended the police and soldiers who broke their strikes and beat them to death (many were first tortured) in the name of law and order. Allende may have been well intentioned in his desire to avoid a conflict with capital and the bourgeoisie, but a conflict was inevitable. As the old saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
In the end, intentions mean very little unless backed by organization, power, and decisiveness. When the cards were down, only Allende hesitated. History, likewise, means little if it doesn’t serve as a guide for future action. Those who uncritically praise Allende and the project of democratic socialism can’t plead ignorance when faced with such a devastating example of their project in action. As Donald Parkinson explains
It is a fool’s errand to tell the masses that a peaceful road to a workers republic, essentially a change in class governance, is something that can be promoted. Even if it was possible and the government was able to enforce a minimum program without prompting civil war, it would still require mass mobilization to combat sabotage…They treat the liberal state as a neutral site of class conflict that the proletariat can transform to its own ends over time, slowly enough to avoid a period of social conflict where a rupture in the class nature of the state will occur. This idea assumes we can sneak a revolution past the bourgeoisie and ignores problems like capital flight that crash attempts at social-democratic reforms.
It’s strange to hear Allende’s last speech, with his declaration of certainty that “the seeds we have sown in the dignified conscious of thousands…of Chileans will not be shriveled forever,” and that “Sooner rather than later, the great avenues will open again, where free men will walk to build a better society.” Could the great orator have imagined the streets of Chile in the 21st century? Learning the political lessons from Chileans’ history of struggle is the key to fulfilling that vision.
By Luke Pickrell