The Battle of Chile
These are the reviews, published on In Defence of Marxism and Hands Off Venezuela, of the three parts of Patricio Guzmàn's film The Battle of Chile (La batalla de Chile) screened in London in 2008. I've been responsible for this series of screenings during Autumn 2008.
I - The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie
On August 20th, 2008, the film season Venezuela: a revolution on film, organised in London by Hands Off Venezuela in association with the Venezuelan Embassy, attracted more than forty people again to the screening of the first part of The Battle of Chile. As usual, Pablo Roldan (HOV) introduced the screening in Bolívar Hall. This documentary is a fantastic video document on the Chilean Revolution and its defeat, shot during the course of the events by Patricio Gúzman and his team.
The first part covers the period of time spanning from March 1973, when the left-wing coalition Popular Unity gets 43.7% of the votes, preventing the Right from legally impeaching the Socialist President Salvador Allende, until the first coup attempt, less than four months later. The title of this part is, significantly, The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie.
In fact, the failure of the right-wing parties (the US-supported Christian Democrats, National Party and others) to obtain a two-third majority comes as a completely unexpected result to the middle-class supporters of counter-revolution. While documenting the last skirmishes of the electoral campaign, the film-makers visit the luxurious house of a right-wing family, immerge into a proletarian crowd at a Popular Unity event asking what has changed in their lives since Allende came to power, and interview drivers of expensive cars while the cameraman explores details of their vehicles or outfits. Using such effective devices, the film illuminates for the supporters of either side, their class position and their political opinions. You cannot help appreciating how the latter strongly correlates with the former.
Even more than the plebeian determination to support the Socialist government in the hope of a decisive change in society, something else instantly brings to mind contemporary accounts of the situation in Venezuela or Bolivia, viz the arrogance and class hatred of the most dreadfully outspoken supporters of the Right. While most rich right-wingers declare that they are in favour of the legal path to get rid of “the Communist, Marxist bastards”, several, especially when the early electoral results seem to confirm the predicted right-wing triumph, assert more ruthless intentions: “And now he’ll have to leave the country!” It is exactly this language which is used by those who oppose Chávez, Morales or Correa today – at least, when they do not expressly demand the execution of those left-wing presidents.
This is just the beginning of a whole series of striking resemblances between Chile 1973 and the reactionary conspiracies trying to stop the current revolutionary processes in Latin America. As in Bolivia, Ecuador or Venezuela, the Chilean opposition explored all possibilities in order to overthrow the elected government that was menacing the domination of imperialism and the profits of the national bourgeoisie.
First of all, they tried to use their narrow majority in the parliament to paralyse the government’s action. Reforms promulgated by the government were unfunded or cancelled by the right-wing MPs (Christian Democrats and Nationalists alike). Ministers appointed by Allende were recalled. “Enquiries” were set up to investigate the actions of the bodies created by the revolutionary process, like the neighbourhood committees against hoarding and speculation (Juntas de Abastecimiento y Precios). Allende’s obsession with a pedant respect of parliamentary and constitutional procedures resulted in a standstill: as Marx and Engels wrote about the Paris Commune, “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes”.
The plan of the ruling class was to create a situation that could justify a military intervention, as the film explained. This plan implied different kinds of manoeuvres.
The transport strike combined with the US embargo to disrupt food supplies and the whole economy of the country. Shopkeepers and other middle-class sectors joined the struggle against Allende with lock-outs. The film shows a conference of an association of taxi and truck owners during the organisation of the strike, followed by scenes from the daily life of thousands of working-class families who organised to resist the sabotage.
Right-wing and moderate students’ associations also had their share of participation in the conspiracy. A progressive reform of education was blocked by the protests of those students’ groups, often involving violent street fights with Young Socialists and Young Communists. The students of the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile were mainly the sons and daughters of the oligarchs and supporters of gremialismo, a conservative Catholic university movement close to Fascism. The film-makers sarcastically underline how suddenly they all became very interested in supporting strikes, inviting right-wing trade unionists to their meetings, collecting money for them etc. Hands Off Venezuela has already explained that the nature of the Venezuelan “democratic students’ movement” is not much different – and they also started to mobilise in opposition to a progressive reform of the university system, using private universities for the rich as their strongholds.
The strike by a relatively privileged section of copper miners, the workers of the huge mine of El Teniente, nationalised by Allende, is also described in the film. In a very impressive, albeit sad, scene of the documentary, a pro-Allende trade unionist is given the opportunity to speak to a massive meeting of right-wing miners in a stadium. Just before him, the leader of the right-wing miners has said that “Our interests come first, then Chile’s”. When he starts to explain why he does not support a strike with the demand for a special increase in the wages of El Teniente miners only, called with the clear purpose of paralysing the country’s economy and destabilising the government, the crowd starts to whistle and boo, and the whole stadium chants the appalling slogan “No politics! No politics!” As if they could ignore politics in Chile 1973! (Their leaders ignored politics so much that they managed to have a brilliant career in the official dictatorship-backed trade unions after Pinochet came to power.)
Nevertheless, not all workers at El Teniente approved the strike. This reminds us of the role played by the workers of PDVSA (Venezuela’s state-owned oil company), in preventing the bosses’ lock-out from destabilising the country in December 2002. The film-makers interviewed several left-wing workers that refused to go on strike and managed to sustain the vital copper production until the majority of miners came back to work. The friendly approach of Allende towards these misled workers is also clearly shown in the documentary.
At the same time, an increasing number of Allende supporters start to question his ultra-gradualist approach and his soft hand with the Reaction. They are not only the more extreme left-wing groups like the MIR or the MAPU, but also average Socialist and Communist workers. Fascist groups like Fatherland and Freedom (Patria y Libertad) raise their heads more and more, openly calling for the violent removal of Allende and the reversal of all his reforms. The United States are clearly manoeuvring behind the scenes, assisting the Right both financially and by providing CIA agents as “instructors”. During a mass demonstration in support of the government, a man is killed by “Christian Democrat” sharpshooters on the roof of the party building. His funeral turns into another large scale event.
The first part of The Battle of Chile ends with the shocking images of the first coup attempt, known as Tanquetazo because the right-wing officers who assaulted the presidential palace used tanks. The coup failed, after taking some innocent lives – one of them being Leonardo Henrichsen, an Argentinean cameraman who filmed his own death. The film terminates with the terrible scene of a military aiming at the camera and shooting.
At the end of the screening, there was some time for questions and debate. Roberto Navarrete was introduced to the audience: he was a political prisoner under Pinochet and he now lives in the UK. He explained how the events in Chile were connected with the international situation and how the hand of the United States was behind each counter-revolutionary manoeuvre at least since Allende arrived second in the presidential elections of 1964, a loud alarm bell for the Department of State. He also underlined the similarities between the Venezuelan revolutionary process and the Chilean one – and the significant economic difference consisting of the fact that copper prices were at a low in Allende’s times while oil, Venezuela’s main export, has reached record-high prices during Chávez years; this, combined with the strengthening of the Left on a continental scale, creates a more favourable context for Socialist policies, giving the Bolivarian Revolution a certain breathing space that Chile could not enjoy.
There was a question about stockpiling and the black market. A similar problem with food speculation exists in Venezuela at the present time. Pablo Roldan explained that it is the result of both a conscious sabotage of the oligarchs and an automatic reaction of the “invisible hand” of capitalism against any form of strong state intervention in the distribution of commodities. In Venezuela very few capitalist companies control food production and distribution, which gives them a powerful tool to sabotage price control and try to starve the Revolution to death; at the same time, price control in a capitalist framework reduces profit and therefore encourages capital to be invested elsewhere. The only solution lies in the expropriation of the big monopolies and the involvement of the workers not only in neighbourhood committees but in the running of the nationalised companies. The same applied to Chile at that time.
Several questions focused on why the Chilean Revolution did not manage to fight back against the violence of the reaction. Allende and the Left had millions of supporters, why were they not given arms? A comrade from the audience recalled how mass demonstrations were actually demanding weapons but Allende refused to deliver them to the workers; in his opinion, this reformist attitude was the main reason for the defeat. We will see in more detail in the next part of the movie what kind of tactics was chosen by the government to deal with the unreliable officers of the Chilean army after the first coup attempt.
Roberto Navarrete said that this is a highly controversial issue within the Chilean Left and there are different evaluations. Clearly, Allende and the more moderate wing of Popular Unity (a wing of the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, the Radical Party and others) favoured the idea of a peaceful and legal path to socialism.
In his intervention, Rob Sewell (editorial board of Socialist Appeal) explained that for him it was necessary to study and also criticise the role of Salvador Allende in the Chilean Revolution, but at the same time we have to remember that Allende honestly believed in the constitutional path to socialism, which is shown by his own heroic sacrifice, when he committed suicide while the presidential palace was surrounded by Pinochet’s troops. Our criticism against his reformist mistakes is therefore of a comradely and fraternal character. What prevented the Chilean Revolution to go all the way was not just a military issue – basically, it was a political one. Popular Unity did not go all the way in and this created the political conditions that, together with economic chaos, weariness and disillusionment, paved the way for the Reaction until its final revenge on September 11th 1973.
The army ranks themselves are made of working-class people. Victorious revolutions have always managed to split the army along class lines, thus neutralising its counter-revolutionary potential. Therefore arming the people is correct but it is not a panacea in itself and cannot be separated by other political tasks. Chile shows that the ruling class will never give up its power without a struggle, and it will use all possible ways to remove a government that is arousing the workers and consciously or unconsciously inciting them to take power, and therefore it is necessary to spoil them of their economic power by expropriating the commanding heights of economy. The bourgeois state apparatus will refuse to serve the opposite purpose to the one for which it was created and perfected decades or centuries ago, and therefore it needs to be smashed and replaced with a different system, based on workers’ democracy and self-organisation. This is not just a Chilean thing, because the same can apply to any other capitalist country, including Britain. (The novel A Very British Coup and its TV adaptation were also mentioned by Rob).
II - The Coup d’État
On September 10th, 2008, The Coup d’État, the second part of Patricio Guzmán’s The Battle of Chile was screened in Bolívar Hall in London, as part of the Hands Off Venezuela Film Series organised in collaboration with the Venezuelan Embassy in the UK.
Information about the first part, screened on August 20th, can be found in the previous report. The second part of the documentary is also extremely interesting and deals with the last weeks of the Allende government, from the first failed coup attempt (the Tanquetazo on June 29th) to September 11th, 1973, when Pinochet overthrew the democratic government and established the rule of the military Junta.
This part opens with the dramatic account of the July coup. That coup was defeated in quite a similar way to April 2002 in Venezuela: the population immediately reacted and took to the streets, risking their lives in defence of the Revolution; the majority of the army vacillated, did not decide which side to back and remained in the barracks; a more or less “loyal” and “constitutionalist” minority of the army easily crushed the military uprising. Nevertheless, it was quite a serious matter: more than twenty people died in the confrontation.
Politically, the coup was clearly the initiative of the Fascist group Fatherland and Freedom (Patria y Libertad) whose leaders sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy immediately after the defeat; at the same time, several mass media owned by members of the Chilean oligarchy showed warm support for the attempted putsch during the hours in which it seemed it might succeed, but tried to play down its seriousness after the event. The film shows an interesting face-to-face TV debate between a young Communist MP and a National Party MP. The Communist effectively exposes the political involvement of the National Party in the coup and quotes the enthusiastic declaration of right-wing radio stations on July 29th, followed on the 30th by allegations of the right-wing press that the coup (with all those victims!) was a hoax organised by the government! The right-wing MP in his reply fails to condemn the uprising using specious arguments and… refers to his own academic career as proof of his moral rectitude!
Most of this second part of the film is devoted to explaining the debate that unfolded among the supporters of Allende. A more moderate wing on the one hand (the Communist Party, the Radical Party, the MAPU-OC, the Christian Left and Allende himself) promoted “dialogue” with the Christian Democracy, insisting on the “constitutional path” and trying to water down the most “controversial” aspects of the revolutionary process. On the other hand a more radical wing (most of the Socialist Party, the MAPU and, outside the Popular Unity coalition, the MIR) suggested that deepening the revolution, arming the workers and strengthening the organisations of people’s power was the only way forward to prevent another coup.
In the aftermath of the coup, as an immediate retaliation, the Popular Unity proclaimed the occupation of several factories and the creation of the “industrial belts” under workers’ control. In the film, solemn workers’ meetings ratify the decision and reorganise production without the bosses, swearing oaths to defend Allende and fight against Fascism to the very end. And yet, under the pressure of the alleged need to reach a deal with the Christian Democracy, the moderate wing of the government would very soon start to propose handing some expropriated factories back to the previous owners – instead of consolidating an alternative planned economy based on workers’ control and democratic management from below, which would have been entirely possible given the level of consciousness and the admirable self-organisation of the working class.
Several congresses and rallies over the summer, also shown in the film, defined the political lines of the various left-wing parties. The debate on which path to follow did not shake only the political parties, but also the trade unions and all popular organisations and communities.
The documentary shows a trade union bureaucrat discussing with a large group of workers: among the rank and file, criticism of the “legalistic line”, preached by Allende and accepted by the trade union leadership, seems unanimous. The workers say that all important and viable factories must be permanently expropriated and used as armed strongholds for the revolution. The bureaucrat can only try to reply with vague references to the “Swiss capitalists” that own some of those factories and must not be enraged by nationalisations, in order to have Chile’s foreign debt renegotiated on more favourable conditions. The trade unionist does not seem to realise that foreign debt can also be repudiated by a revolutionary government. However, the workers from the floor clarify that they could not care less if the expropriated factories are the property “of Swiss bankers or Queen Elizabeth”. The argument between the workers and their “representative” continues, dealing with different points: the question of the level of consciousness of the masses, the question of bankrupt companies etc. It is self-evident from the footage that – whatever mistakes its leadership may have made – Chile 1973 was a true revolution, with the active involvement of the toiling masses at all levels.
In the last summer of Allende, the masses start to develop a certain frustration in the face of the ambiguities of el compañero Presidente and quite often become critical towards his decisions. Another impressive scene: in a mass rally in support of the government, the slogan of Cerrar, cerrar / el Congreso Nacional (Close, close / the Parliament) starts being chanted by the crowd; Allende replies to his supporters that he cannot shut down the Parliament and the masses react with a chorus of whistles and boos – nevertheless, he promises to organise a national plebiscite on the issue (similar to the tactics used this year by Evo Morales).
The hatred of the militant masses against Parliament was well deserved. After the Tanquetazo, everybody in Chile knew that another more serious coup was being prepared. The President needed the state of emergency to be declared in order to be legally entitled to take drastic measures against the reactionary plots in the armed forces, but Parliament, dominated by the Christian Democrats and the Nationalists, used its power of veto. In the meantime, the Chilean marines performed a series of spectacular actions in occupied factories, in poor neighbourhoods, even in a cemetery, searching for hidden weapons: pro-Allende masses could not arm themselves, yet the coup-makers were allowed to organise freely! Members of a poor community are interviewed and explain that they all support the government because its reforms for the first time gave them some dignity, and they are all in favour of arming but the government does not allow them to do so: “If they come with firearms, we cannot resist with our bare hands!” Everybody knew that they would come.
From the gradualist and constitutionalist point of view of Salvador Allende, the only solution was pursuing a compromise with the Christian Democracy and the army. A new cabinet was formed, with the inclusion of the chiefs of the armed forces; the reactionary rector of the Catholic University of Santiago was also urged by Allende to join the cabinet, but he refused and the first round of talks with the Christian Democracy did not give concrete results. The political centre was clearly playing around to exhaust Allende and erode his credibility while the US-backed conspiracy progressed.
A key loyal officer in the Navy, Arturo Araya, was killed on July 26th, in the middle of Allende’s negotiations with the Christian Democracy. The same day a campaign of acts of terrorism and sabotage started to be waged throughout the country by the CIA-trained paramilitary group Patria y Libertad. Against the background of the hypocritical facial expressions of Chilean top officers attending Araya’s military funeral, the film-makers comment that this assassination was meant to remove an obstacle in the organisation of the plot.
More chaos was needed. Once more, it was provided by the truck transporters. A massive lock-out of private transport companies threatened the national economy with complete paralysis. The government’s firm reaction when force was finally used to break the US-inspired siege was used by the opposition as another excuse to kick up a fuss.
In the middle of August, the Catholic Church intervened. The Revolution was going too far and it was necessary to make an attempt to stop it with a typical trick: create an unnatural alliance with some “reasonable” bourgeois forces in whose name any element of social transformation would be reverted. Even if that had worked, it would probably have delayed but not prevented the coup – there are several historical examples. However, the attempt by the Church to force an alliance between the Popular Unity and the Christian Democracy failed. Patricio Aylwin, then leader of the Christian Democrats and later “critical advisor” of Pinochet and President of Chile in 1989, listed, as the pre-conditions for an agreement, completely unreasonable demands that infuriated the Left and were eventually refused by Allende himself. Significantly, one of the main demands was the restoration of the previous ownership in the nationalised factories of the industrial belts.
August 22nd is a key date. Due to the heavy pressure coming from the military, Carlos Pratt, the Minister of Defence, resigned and was replaced by General Augusto Pinochet (considered a respectful follower of the Constitution, also because of his role in the repression of the July coup) as Commander-in-Chief of the army (Pinochet was later to assassinate him in an act of international terrorism in Buenos Aires in 1974). On the same day, the Chamber of Deputies, with the joint votes of the Christian Democrats and the Right, passed a resolution denouncing the President of the Republic for breaking the constitutional order. This was basically an appeal to the army to intervene.
One week before the final attack, a huge mass demonstration concentrated in Santiago in defence of the government, democratic rights and the Revolution. The images of that day are moving, shocking and terrifying at the same time. With the wisdom of hindsight, it is incredible that such a horror could happen in the face of such a conscious mass movement – but wonderful and massive movements can still be misled into disaster.
The images of September 11th are painful and terribly familiar: the bombers over the Moneda Palace, the last dignified radio appeal of Allende to the masses, the last picture of the President, helmet on his head and a weapon in his hand. Surrounded by the enemy, who would later commit suicide taking upon himself all the political and moral responsibility of his decisions.
The video with the first official declarations of the newly established military Junta is nauseating. The defenders of the status quo blame the “Marxist government of Salvador Allende” for “compelling” them to take the “sad” decision of “breaking the democratic tradition”. The Parliament that Allende refused to close was closed by Pinochet – without much complaint from the parties that dominated it.
As an intervention by one of the people in the debate said, the Chilean tragedy makes the politically aware viewer feel sorry but also angry. How was it possible? What would have been “the right way”, if a right way did exist? Why did the President not listen to his own supporters demanding a strong hand against Reaction?
The whole of the second part of The Battle of Chile is actually fundamentally about the debate within Popular Unity, within the trade union movement, within the organisations that supported the Revolution, about what was to be done to stop the coup and keep the Revolution alive, for the establishment of a genuinely socialist Chile.
A similar debate developed among the audience after the screening. Comrade Sara de Witt, ex-political prisoner under Pinochet, was also present and replied to some of the questions. Everybody in the hall realised that that discussion had a strong relevance for today's revolutionary processes in Latin America, especially the Venezuelan and Bolivian. The recent crisis in Bolivia and the events in Venezuela had not occurred yet, but a lot of what was said that night would unfortunately become even more relevant the day after, when, just on the anniversary of Pinochet’s putsch, the Bolivian Fascists staged a coup in the Eastern part of the country, while in Venezuela a plot to assassinate Chávez was disclosed and several top military officers were arrested. The US ambassadors in both countries have now been expelled as a protest against US interference to stop, once again, the revolutionary emancipation of Latin America.
Several interventions from the floor were about the differences and similarities between Chile 1973 and Venezuela 2002, or Chile 1973 and Bolivia 2008. Somebody stated that in the Venezuelan Revolution the conditions are better because the Bolivarian Revolution is “peaceful but armed”, as Hugo Chávez put it. Furthermore, the class composition of the Venezuelan army is much more proletarian, also among the commanding layers, than the Chilean one, because of different traditions (the rich did not bother to send their sons into the army…). The international situation is also different, because at that time international relations were dominated by the conflict between imperialism and the USSR. Somebody else replied that President Chávez has good intentions but still needs to relieve the oligarchy of all its economic power, as is also (and even more) the case in Bolivia.
Another comrade remarked that Allende was a bit of an idealist: he nationalised the mines etc., but was not prepared to organise the military measures needed to defend the conquests of the Revolution. The Chilean case set a dangerous example for the masses of the rest of Latin America and that is why imperialism decided to drown that marvellous movement in the blood of the workers, students and peasants of Chile.
Another person asked about how you can measure political support. Perhaps Allende was compelled to “slow down” the process because his consensus was limited. Sara de Witt replied that the Popular Unity was constantly increasing its support, also in the elections, ever since Allende took power in 1970. Furthermore, it is not just a question of consensus in a purely electoral sense, it is also a question of enthusiasm and the arousing of the masses, which can be obtained only when a Revolution is giving results. The experience of the organisation of people’s power – workers’ committees, anti-hoarding committees, neighbourhood organisations – was a key issue in the Chilean Revolution (and it is the subject of the third part of the documentary); the film itself showed how the transport lock-out was met by the masses with an initiative from below meant to re-organise the distribution for the needs of the population – the film also shows how the workers started to act as a police force on that occasion, an example of how the bourgeois state apparatus can be replaced by another one.
In answer to another question at the end of the meeting, Sara also explained that ordinary people were aware of US involvement in the conspiracy, but did not imagine to what extent. Nobody knew that the truckers’ strike received a $5m payment from the CIA – and in any case the right-wing press suppressed all information.
The hypocrisy of US imperialism (the main supporter of the military coup and of the subsequent regime of terror) was also underlined, in reference to the coincidence of the 35th anniversary of September 11th, 1973, the 7th anniversary of September 11th, 2001, and the 10th anniversary of the arrest of the five Cuban heroes (Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino, Fernando González, and René González) in Miami, which occurred on September 12th, 1998. The meeting voted in favour of sending a message of internationalist solidarity to the Cuban Five, that you can read at Message in solidarity with the Cuban Five sent by a HOV public meeting in London.
In the final remarks, a HOV member said that history seems easier to understand with the wisdom of hindsight, but now we are in the middle of history and we need the same wisdom on the basis of the past experience of the workers’ movement. If the failed coup in Venezuela in 2002 had had another outcome, in Bolívar Hall there would be no film screenings and discussions about revolutions and socialism, but maybe a business meeting between Venezuelan bosses and businessmen of the City. We can have different opinions on which is the right path to follow in Venezuela and Bolivia, but we cannot be neutral or renounce thinking and discussing about it. Hands Off Venezuela sides unconditionally with the Bolivarian Revolution, so that it can become that “dangerous example” for the workers, peasants and youth of the whole world that Chile was prevented from becoming.
III - People's Power
On Wednesday, October 5th, in Bolívar Hall in London, 25 people attended the screening of “People's Power” (“El poder popular”) the third part of “The Battle of Chile” (“La batalla de Chile”), by Patricio Guzmán. This film was produced in 1979, some years after the first two parts of “The Battle of Chile” had already become a “classic” on the development and defeat of the Chilean Revolution and the Allende government.
This film focuses on “People’s Power”, i.e. the formation of grassroots movements and organisations that challenged the old structure of Chilean society in an attempt to revolutionise the whole system. Workers, peasants and youth organised first to break the resistance of the bosses and then moved on to use People’s Power in a more creative way, as the embryo of a new society. Several forms of People’s Power and the related problems are shown in the film alongside the development of the political situation on a national scale.
People’s Power stops the counter-revolution
First of all, the workers tried to defend their jobs, the economy of their country, their government and the revolution itself, from the first vicious lockout organised by the bosses of the trucking industry. The whole Chilean transport system was paralysed from October 11th, 1972, causing huge disruption to the economy. The counter-revolutionary attack was initially launched by the rightist National Party and the confederation of trucking companies, but one by one all the reactionary parties (including the Christian Democrats) and middle-class associations of the country fell into line in backing the seditious strike. In some factories, the bosses’ sabotage went to the point that the owners, managers and technicians abandoned the plants.
In this context, the workers started to fight back. A parallel transport system was organised from below to transport the workers and the raw materials and get them to the factories. Trucks owned by the nationalised factories became improvised buses for the workers. Abandoned factories were reorganised under workers’ control and with the aid of those few technicians, engineers etc., who kept on working (in some cases being “shared” by several companies). In the film we can see how the workers did not really miss their bosses very much:
“We are fine, now that our bosses have abandoned us, we go forward. They left and left the factory to us. So, we have continued to work here normally, without any problem. […] In spite of everything, now we are happier, it's much better, and hopefully I will be able to shake the hand of my comrade Allende.”
In this way the appeal against the strike launched by the government was successful and the right wing was temporarily defeated.
Another field where People’s Power was effectively used was in the war against hoarding. The US blockade spurred hoarding by shopkeepers, middlemen, speculators etc., who exploited to their advantage the dramatic shortage of supplies. The government issued strict laws to punish the hoarders and to establish central control on stocks and supplies, but this would have remained on paper without mass support and participation. Some factories, through their trade union organisations, started to sell their products directly to the working-class neighbourhoods and community warehouses (the “people’s warehouses” set up in 1973 as consumer co-operatives to bypass the profiteers). The film makers comment: “Other factories send pickets of workers to open the closed stores. These workers play the role of inspectors at the service of the government.” We clearly had the beginnings of dual power: the official power of the bourgeois state and the capitalists, and “People’s Power”, i.e. the power of the working class and the revolutionary peasantry.
The vital need to oppose hoarding and violent terrorist attacks by CIA-backed Fascists compelled the organs of People’s Power to organise vigilante committees and armed detachments, even though the central government would always stubbornly refuse to arm the people – an approach that was to prove fatal in September 1973.
The good results of the enterprises belonging to the “social sector” (nationalised and under workers’ control) eventually frustrated the counter-revolutionary plot and convinced the Christian Democracy to temporarily reject the more extremist tactics, trying to reach a deal with Allende and water down the political line of the government. In order to get the support of the Christian Democrats, Allende incorporated the Commanders-in-Chief of the Armed Forces into a new cabinet that combined top military officers (like General Carlos Prats, who would be assassinated by Pinochet’s agents in 1974) with civilians. The workers interviewed in the movie gave a generally favourable response to this change. Many of the same workers who were striving to create People’s Power still had illusions that the army could be reliably used to smash the counter-revolution – this demonstrates the contradictory character of the movement. The following dialogue between the interviewer and a factory worker shows a typical point of view:
“I’ve never liked the military in the government, for the simple reason that democratic systems are alien to the military.” – “Why then has comrade Allende used the military?” – “I imagine that the situation was too serious and so it was necessary because of temporary circumstances, nothing more – to have the authority to bring order, but it can’t be permanent, it has to be for a short time…”
This attempt would be tragically revealed as a blind alley a few months later, but it did not prevent People’s Power from continuing to develop parallel to the suicidal constitutional path. This alarmed the more moderate parties on the Left, afraid of the spontaneous activity of the masses, almost as much as the ruling class itself.
Workers and peasants try to reorganise society
The Industrial Belts (Cordones Industriales), especially Cordón Cerrillos, constituted the most advanced example. They were genuine forms of workers’ democracy: co-ordinating committees of organised workers that took control of their workplaces. The similarities between these bodies of workers’ power and the original Russian soviets (of the pre-Stalin era) are striking. Formed at the end of the October conflict, the Cerrillos Industrial Belt comprised 250 businesses from the Southern part of Santiago.
People’s Power also became a means of forming a united front between the working class and the peasantry. The documentary shows how the peasants in the village of Maipú relied on support by detachments of workers from the Industrial Belts to occupy and expropriate estates owned by big landlords and reorganise production in a co-operative manner. In the same scene, we can witness a conflict between the spontaneous struggle of the masses and the limitations of the “legal path”, represented by the pernicious role of the state bureaucracy in charge of “organising” (in fact, restraining) the land reform. The judiciary placed one thousand legal obstacles in the way of the peasants in struggle, trying in different ways to hand the estates back to their “legitimate” owners, and the government and its officers did not intervene.
The experience of workers’ control under the most difficult siege conditions sparked proletarian creativity applied to the daily problems of production. In the plants, political and economic discussion covered all aspects of the struggle. In the film we could see how the most advanced layers of the working class recognised the basic contradiction of dual power: nationalised companies under workers’ control could not survive for a prolonged period alongside a state that preserved its capitalist character and an economic system still dominated to a large extent by private profit. The demand raised in the workers’ meetings is openly for the establishment of a collective economy democratically planned from below: in other words, a genuine transition to socialism.
The word “socialism” sounds much more concrete and practical if you associate it with the images of the organised workers autonomously managing production, distribution and public order. This is certainly a very precious video document on what a revolution truly looks like. Watching this movie, you can’t help thinking that just within the official shell of any capitalist society (not only Chile in the Seventies, but also every capitalist country in our times) lies a sort of dormant energy that is only waiting to be unleashed. Repressed and forcibly prevented from surfacing in “normal” times, it is a new order maturing “within the womb of the old society”, as Marx said, that emerges in a revolutionary conjuncture.
What the Chilean activists and the film itself call “People’sPower” are the elements of a new order based on workers’ democracy and control, mass participation based on political awareness and class consciousness, collective ownership of the means of production, reorganisation of the economy on the basis of needs instead of profit. After all, having – more or less consciously– unleashed this energy is the main sin that Salvador Allende and tens of thousands of Chilean leftists and revolutionaries paid for with their lives or with years of prison, torture, humiliation or exile. But, in so doing, the bourgeoisie is only sweeping its own dirt under the carpet.
Lessons for today
A Question & Answer session followed the screening, with the participation of comrade Sara De Witt and other ex Chilean political prisoners.
There were some questions on the reforms implemented by Salvador Allende and the level of support he enjoyed. While it is clear that in those few years and under such terrible conditions, and as it was confined within the limits of capitalism, the revolution could not really obtain much, Sara explained how the foundations for very radical changes were actually in place and this triggered a wave of enthusiasm especially among the most exploited layers of society, that reflected itself in a steady increase of electoral support for Unidad Popular. At the same time, Chilean society was extremely polarised, which is what we have to expect in any revolutionary situation, and the Right also did have some base of support.
There was a question asking why the so-called “socialist bloc” could not help Chile in establishing socialism. The author of this report answered that question, expressing the opinion that, even if revolutions cannot be simply “imported”, the opportunism and bureaucratisation of the leaderships of both the USSR and the People’s Republic of China had had a very negative role in the whole process. Realpolitik and the acceptance of the “Monroe doctrine” that identified Latin America as the backyard of the White House always determined the actions of both Moscow and Beijing. Also the Cuban revolution was anything but the result of a conscious support by Khrushchev. The leaders of the Communist Party of Chile, with strong links to the Kremlin, had always sided with the most moderate wing of the movement, warning against any kind of revolutionary action by the masses. China even went to the extent of establishing very friendly diplomatic relations with Pinochet, on the basis that the Chinese leaders tended to always do the opposite of what the Soviet leaders did (the USSR had at least broken all diplomatic relations with Chile after the coup).
A very young member of the audience asked a question about the role of teachers in those years and what the government did for young children. Sara replied that the Allende government was very active in improving the conditions of schools, extending and improving education for poor children, which motivated many teachers in getting more involved in the struggle and siding with the revolution.
Another question was about the opinion of the Chileans today about what happened in those months of turmoil. Different opinions were expressed about the changes that have taken place in Chilean society since 1973. Some said that society has become much more affected by consumerism and there is a lack of strong ideals, but Sara underlined the fact that after such a tragic defeat you can only expect that people want to forget for some time. The same has happened in any other country after the workers have been defeated in an important struggle, but it never prevented the new generation from starting again from where their parents were forced to stop.
Comparisons were also drawn, once again, with the current situation in Venezuela – this was in fact the reason why Hands Off Venezuela promoted this film screening series! “People’s Power” is strong in Venezuela too and very similar processes are unfolding in that country. “Crear / crear / poder popular” is a slogan as relevant now as it was in 1972-73!