History Is Ours: Salvador Allende & Chile’s Thwarted Revolution

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In November of 1970, following a long and uncertain campaign, the Chilean working class elected a self-described Marxist, Salvador Allende to the Presidency. With the Socialist Party at the helm, the Allende government instituted reforms that radically improved life for working-class Chileans.

Three years later, Allende’s government was violently overturned in a savage US-backed coup that killed thousands of activists, labor leaders, and average workers over the course of only a few weeks, with countless others added to that total in the sixteen years of dictatorship that followed. Today, 50 years after the fact, many of those disappeared by the Pinochet regime remain unaccounted for, buried under the classified documents and bureaucratic obfuscation which defined his extreme, reactionary administration. Neoliberal capitalist restoration, a project pioneered by American think tank imperialists, resulted in the return of widespread poverty and abject suffering which had been ameliorated, however briefly, by the Popular Unity government with Salvador Allende at its helm.

For the crime of envisioning a better world governed by and for all people – and for the mistake of standing against working-class attempts to organize against the coup – Allende and his comrades were murdered, tortured, erased from history, or more often than not, all of the above. The blood of the Chilean workers stains not just the hands of Augusto Pinochet or his military Junta, but those of the foreign and domestic capitalists who supported his rise to power. After the brutal military takeover, Chile became the testing ground for a group of economists nicknamed the “Chicago boys,” whose neoliberal policies like deregulation, austerity, and privatization destroyed the improvements that Chilean workers had been able to win, and which were soon exported all over the world. We must never forget the events that unfolded in September of 1973, and we must closely study the lessons of this brutally suppressed movement to build a socialist society.

Great Yearnings for Justice

Under the leadership of the Allende administration, what he termed the “Chilean Path to Socialism” initially saw great success in nationalizing the extraction of resources like copper, providing citizens with free healthcare and education, introducing a livable minimum wage, and expanding public works projects which led to a significant increase in employment. One particularly well known initiative was the Free Milk Program, which provided sustenance and consistent nutrition to the children of struggling families.

A mere two years into his reconstruction of the Chilean economy, 40% of it had successfully been brought under public ownership. Despite remaining quite high, the Popular Unity government achieved a massive reduction in inflation, and expanded social services across the board.

The socialist vision which drove the implementation of these policies was immensely popular with the working class, and why shouldn’t it have been? This government, which toppled the string of staunch conservative administrations that had preceded it since the establishment of liberal democracy in the country, had brought with it hope for a brighter future and a tangible increase in the standard of living. This had been achieved in spite of the inclusion of small capitalist parties in the “Popular Front” government and, indeed, members of those parties in Allende’s cabinet. With these positions he sought to assuage them – but this only provided capitalist reaction a foothold in the government, which would before long become full-fledged counter-revolution.

The capitalist class, of course, could not stand for the massive reform effort. It goes without saying that this bold new society being built right under their noses, all while adhering to the nation’s pre existing constitution, was a direct threat to their hegemony. They could not take this affront to their rule sitting down, and accordingly, they did not.

In 1972 there was a massive wave of reaction in the form of a “bosses’ strike,” wherein capitalists pulled out their financial backing and strategically deprived the people of necessary resources. Stores which had been stocked just days before saw their commodities rapidly sell out and vanish. By withdrawing the capital that was still under their control, the capitalist class had succeeded in stripping the people of their access to the food and water they needed to live, wreaking havoc on the changing economy and undoing the gains of the young project. The growth of working-class consciousness in Latin America which bucked the influence of US imperialism was seen as an aggravated challenge to their international dominance, and was treated as such.

Respect The Constitution And The Law

In an effort to ward off American intervention in the country, Allende adopted a conciliatory approach to reaction. He frequently spoke of defending the constitutionality of his administration and of the armed forces, leading to the appointment of the reactionary generals to his Cabinet that would soon overthrow him. Despite multiple failed attempts at a more discreet form of military coup, he admonished workers for brandishing arms and fighting to defend the new government, having a small squadron of sailors arrested in Valisparo for dereliction of military duty. In reality, what the Valisparo sailors had done was loudly proclaim what they had seen with their own eyes: a plot to violently overthrow the government, within Chile’s military.

In the days leading up to the ultimate victory of Pinochet’s military upheaval, nearly one million protesters organized a demonstration in front of the Presidential Palace, demanding that Allende shutter the bourgeois parliament and arm the workers. The Popular Unity government’s refusal, despite saying it would do so, ultimately led to its undoing.

Days later, the palace in front of which they had called for revolution was reduced to rubble, with president Salvador Allende inside. He was a fierce advocate for the people, but ultimately he wrongly believed that socialism was within the government’s power to institute, and not in the purview of the working class itself. Throughout his Presidency, Allende did not mobilize workers and farmers to take power themselves. He did not support or facilitate workers organizing themselves into formations like Soviets to democratically run society and defend it from capitalist reaction. From the very outset it was foreseeable that the capitalist class would refuse to simply cede their power in Chile – and that they would do so violently. By refusing to empower the working class to fight for itself, Allende ensured his own story – and the story of tens of thousands of working-class Chileans – ended in tragedy.

The Power To Continue Defending Their Profits And Privileges

Under Pinochet, Chile became a testing ground for neoliberal capitalism, unprecedented austerity, and widespread deregulation which would lay the groundwork for the policies of Reagan and Thatcher. This political project was overseen by a sadistic military dictatorship, and was enforced by the barrel of a gun and the whistle of falling bombs. Chilean citizens lived under constant fear of arrest, which almost invariably meant unthinkably cruel forms of torture for the victims and a permanent lack of closure for their families and communities.

The Pinochet regime, under the tutelage of CIA specialists in foreign intervention, left no stone unturned when suppressing trade unionists and left-wing activists through horrific acts of violence. In the sixteen years that Pinochet ruled Chile with an iron fist, and for decades afterwards until the day he died at the age of 91, he never faced justice for the torture and internment of thousands. His crimes, it seems, did not warrant any actionable scrutiny from the ruling class – because it was all done in the service of protecting their system.

The Great Avenues Will Open Again

In spite of all of this cruelty, the working class movement which had, for a brief but shining moment, seized power in 1970, was not intimidated into complete dormancy. The throughline of working class resistance has remained unbroken through to today, which we saw in the outburst of a protest movement in 2019 that was millions strong, and which played a role in finally overturning the Pinochet-established constitution.

It was the working class that brought leaders like Allende into power, because it is the working class that will always be the agent of change in society. We cannot reform our way into a socialist future; the capitalists are far too stubborn and violent to allow anything of the sort. Only through revolutionary working class movements can we finally clean our hands of the brutality of capitalism and imperialism once and for all.

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