England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

50 years since Pinochet’s bloody coup in Chile

By Matt Kilsby, Socialist Alternative Greater Manchester

This September marks the 50th anniversary of the coup that overthrew president Salvador Allende in Chile, and installed the barbaric military dictatorship of General Pinochet. In the years that followed, thousands of socialists and trade unionists were murdered, and thousands more imprisoned, tortured and exiled.

The story of Allende’s election and overthrow is, ultimately, one of tragedy but it provides many lessons for socialists today. It’s a reminder of how far imperialism and capitalism will go to protect their interests when fundamentally challenged by the working class. It’s also a reminder of how the failure to break the power of the capitalist class and their state, particularly in the absence of leadership from a revolutionary party, spells disaster for socialists that want to change society for the better.

Popular Unity comes to power

Allende came to power in September 1970 and his election was a historic milestone. For the first time in history a socialist president – and someone who had called himself a Marxist – came to power through the ballot box. He was elected at the head of a Popular Unity (PU) coalition, which was formed of his Socialist Party (SP), the Communist Party and other smaller left-wing parties.

His election terrified the capitalists and ruling classes internationally. When reporting the election results to Washington, the US ambassador stated: ‘Chile voted calmly to have a Marxist-Leninist state, the first country in the world to make this choice freely and knowingly… It will have the most profound effect on Latin America and beyond; we [US and Western imperialism] have suffered a grievous defeat; the consequences will be domestic and international; the repercussions will have immediate impact in some lands and delayed effect in others.’

Allende had unsuccessfully stood for president on three previous occasions, in 1952, 1958 and 1964. In the latter election, the CIA had piled several million dollars into anti-Allende propaganda, which helped Eduardo Frei’s Christian Democrats (CD) to win. Frei had promised a ‘revolution in liberty’ and, hoping he could develop Chilean capitalism, he promised reforms over land ownership and other changes in an attempt to tackle poverty. But for all of this reforming rhetoric, six years of CD rule resulted in very little change for working class Chileans. Unemployment remained high, the economy was stagnant and Chilean capitalism remained reliant on US money.

In response, the working class took matters into their own hands with a wave of strikes and land seizures. By 1970 there were more than 5,000 strikes, involving hundreds of thousands of workers. It was in this context of radicalisation and working-class militancy that workers looked to Allende’s PU to bring about change.

The PU stood on a radical programme that included, among other measures, ‘the transformation of the state so workers could exercise power’, economic planning, nationalisation of the copper mines and other important natural resources, nationalisation of the financial system and industry, and a monopoly on foreign trade. Moreover, the PU planned much needed agrarian reforms and to expropriate land from the landlords for it to be farmed cooperatively. Their programme also expressed solidarity with the Cuban Revolution, and called for socialist revolution in the rest of Latin America, much to the concern of US imperialists.

Within weeks of forming the government, important reforms were implemented on the back of the upsurge of working-class struggle: free school meals were immediately granted and wages increased. As the revolution developed, they eventually delivered on their promise to nationalise the copper mines, which before then had been owned by US multinationals, together with the banking sector. By the time of the coup three years later, 40% of the economy had been taken into state ownership.

Capitalist and imperialist reaction

Whilst Allende’s government was radical, it was reformist in its outlook and never seriously posed the question of how capitalism and the state could be overthrown. Nevertheless, they were considered far too radical and far-reaching to be compatible with the interests of US imperialism and Chilean capitalists, meaning that the military was plotting against them from the very beginning. The then US president, Richard Nixon, ordered that the Chilean economy should be ‘made to scream’ and established a trade embargo.

Meanwhile Allende set the stage for his own defeat. Because he didn’t win an outright majority in the 1970 election, his presidency needed to be confirmed by a parliamentary vote. He therefore compromised, knowing that he needed CD votes in parliament in order to implement the PU’s programme, he signed an agreement that stated that the PU would not interfere with any institution of state power, including the army and the church. This meant that the state machinery was left in the hands of the army generals, which was only exacerbated by Allende’s policy of appeasement: three generals, including Pinochet, were appointed to the government in an attempt to reassure the ruling class and the military.

The working class and revolutionary leadership

It is true to say that Allende enjoyed enormous popularity, but the working class in Chile saw itself as the leading force in the revolution. The organised working class was powerful, with a long history and tradition, which was not afraid to challenge and oppose decisions made by the leaders. And in the face of capitalist reaction, they were ready to fight.

By 1971, a record number of strikes and land occupations had sprung up across the country. Every attempt at sabotage provoked further radicalisation and mass mobilisation from the workers. In 1972, the CIA-backed strikes by the bosses provoked a huge response from the working class, who organised themselves into ‘cordones industriales’, or ‘industrial belts’. These were formed of groups of workers, elected from different workplaces, who came together to self-organise against the bosses and make sure production continued in the face of their economic sabotage. The revolution also deepened in the countryside, with over 10 million acres of land being seized by farmers’ cooperatives and re-distributed.

The situation became very favourable for overthrowing capitalism completely, with the bosses increasingly demoralised and unsure as to how they were going to save their system. The middle classes were also beginning to swing behind the PU government, as shown in the March 1973 congressional elections when they won over 44% of the vote. Despite all the CIA-inspired sabotage, the PU attained a higher vote share than when Allende was first elected.

But instead of supporting the workers, the PU tried to sedate them. In a radio interview Allende stated that ‘people must remain calm for I have confidence that loyal forces [ie the army generals that he had brought into his government] will normalise the situation’.

It is this lack of a revolutionary leadership that is the real tragedy of the Chilean working class. Instead of trying to hold back the masses, a revolutionary party would have supported demands to arm the workers in order to defeat the gathering, counter-revolutionary forces. It would also have supported the expansion of the ‘industrial belts’ and the formation of workers’ councils, which is where the real power would have lain. Such an organisation existed in Russia in 1917 in the form of the Bolshevik Party, led by Lenin and Trotsky, which resulted in the working class overthrowing Tsarism and instigating a democratic workers’ state based on a planned economy.

The coup, Pinochet and the ‘Chicago Boys’

On 11 September 1973, Pinochet and the military finally launched a coup to overthrow Allende and the PU government. Using British-manufactured fighter jets and bombs, the Presidential palace was destroyed and Allende killed. What followed was one of the darkest periods in Latin American history: by the end of Pinochet’s dictatorship in 1990, more than 30,000 people had been murdered and many more thousands brutally tortured and imprisoned.

By 1975, in addition to the physical destruction of the working class and all the gains made by the revolution, Pinochet’s military regime had implemented the world’s first experiment in what would later become known as neo-liberalism. Following the recommendations of the ‘Chicago Boys’, who were led by free-market economist Milton Friedman, a shock doctrine of privatisation, huge cuts in public spending, wage freezes, deregulation and attacks on workers’ rights were unleashed.

50 years on, it is incumbent on socialists today to learn the lessons from the defeat of the Chilean working class and to build a revolutionary party that is capable of leading the working class in the overthrow of this rotten capitalist system and institute a genuine democratic and socialist alternative.

Cybersyn: A socialist internet?

One of the more interesting aspects of Allende’s government was the Cybersyn project, which was largely unknown for decades after the coup. Described as a ‘socialist internet’ by the Guardian newspaper in 2003, the project was decades ahead of its time. It was designed by Stafford Beer, a British computer scientist who was sympathetic to socialism and workers’ autonomy.

When the PU came to power, they found 500 unused Telex machines that had been bought by the previous government. Each of the machines was put into a factory and, each day, data relating to raw materials used, output figures, etc was fed into the State Development Corporation (CORFO) in Santiago. From there the data was analysed by a computer software, comparing it with past performance and discovering anomalies in production.

The local factory managers were then given a period of time to sort out the anomalies on their own; if they couldn’t then CORFO would intervene. In this way, rather than decisions over production being made in a top-down and centralised way, there would be a ‘rollup’ process, as Beer described it, with information and policies being transmitted upwards and downwards, between the factory floor and CORFO, continually adapting to new conditions.

Allende’s stated desire was for Cybersyn’s ‘decentralising, worker-participative and anti-bureaucratic’ possibilities to be expanded further, but this was never fully realised. In addition, for all these good intentions, the role of workers and factory committees was often absent, with decisions being made based on discussions between factory managers and government bureaucrats. After the coup, all work on the project was immediately halted and much of the computer systems that had been constructed were physically destroyed.

Economic planning and workers’ control

The Cybersin project was different to the centralised and bureaucratised command economy that developed in the Soviet Union after Stalin’s rise to power. Writing in the early 1930s, Leon Trotsky, co-leader of the Russian revolution and opponent of the repressive regime that emerged around Stalin, criticised in very sharp terms the bureaucratic mismanagement of the Soviet economy. Due to the lack of workers’ democracy and control, together with the arbitrariness of the Stalinist bureaucracy, there were huge disparities between different branches of the economy.

As Trotsky wrote in 1932:

‘Centralised management implies not only great advantages but also the danger of centralizing mistakes, that is, of elevating them to an excessively high degree. Only continuous regulation of the plan in the process of its fulfilment, its reconstruction in part and as a whole, can guarantee its economic effectiveness.

The art of socialist planning does not drop from heaven nor is it presented full-blown into one’s hands with the conquest of power. This art may be mastered only by struggle, step by step, not by a few but by millions, as a component part of the new economy and culture.’

For Trotsky, democracy and workers’ control is the key to a planned economy:

‘The struggle between living interests, as the fundamental factor of planning, leads us into the domain of politics, which is concentrated economics. The instruments of the social groups of Soviet society are – should be: the Soviets, the trade unions, the cooperatives, and in the first place the ruling party. Only through the inter-reaction of these three elements, state planning, the market, and Soviet democracy, can the correct direction of the economy of the transitional epoch be attained.’

Despite its limitations, for Marxists the Cybersyn project offers a glimpse of how economic planning and workers’ control of production, which Trotsky pointed to in his writings, might be possible today. How much easier a task it would be today, particularly with the advancement of computer technology and the ability of software to analyse huge amounts of data and inputs. In a socialist society, the entire economy will be democratically managed by the working class for the maximum benefit of humankind.


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