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The Socialist Scholars Conference, held March 15-17 in New York City, included a panel sponsored by SCIENCE & SOCIETY on the subject: "Chile: Popular Unity, the Coup, the Future -- A 30th Anniversary Colloquium." Yes, it was 30 years ago, on September 11, 1973 to be precise, when Augusto Pinochet's fascist generals took the Presidential Palace, murdering the Popular Unity (UP) President, Salvador Allende. This coup put an end (for the time being) to Chile's path to social transformation, and initiated the world-infamous regime of terror symbolized by the National Stadium in Santiago, the scores of thousands tortured, murdered, "disappeared" and exiled, and the subsequent brutality of the Pinochet dictatorship.

Our keynote speakers were Dr. Carlos Molina, Vice Minister of Public Health in the Popular Unity government, long-time political activist, and historian at the University of Chile; and Dr. Patricio Quiroga, historian at the University of Valparaiso, who had been a member of the Grupo del Amigos del Presidente, Allende's personal guard during the years of his presidency. During their week-long stay in New York, Drs. Molina and Quiroga spoke with academic and political colleagues from the North American Committee for Latin America (NACLA), the Bildner Center at the City University of New York, the Brecht Forum, and the New School for Social Research. They met with a group of Chilean trade unionists and activists now resident here, and (of course) with the Manuscript Collective of SCIENCE & SOCIETY. Our guests told us about current efforts to revitalize the left in Chile, and in particular their involvement in two important projects. First, the Universidad de Arte y Ciencias Sociales (ARCIS), which originated as an internal University-in-Exile, at the time when Chilean academics were driven out of the established universities. Second, the journal Encuentro XXI, which has been published since 1994 and has become a broad forum for left debate and development. We will provide interested readers with contact information for both of these. Dr. Adam Schesch, a U. S. citizen who was living in Chile in 1973 and survived a period of imprisonment in the National Stadium, did an enormous amount of work organizing the week's activities, for which we are indebted to him. He also participated in the Socialist Scholars panel. I would also like to acknowledge the generous assistance of José Matta, whose deep knowledge and dedication made the visit productive and enjoyable for our Chilean guests and for those who met with them; also, the able language interpretation skills of Jill Hamburg.


To a degree not present in most other countries in Latin America under U. S. imperialist domination, Chile in the 20th century was able to build an autonomous political process within a constitutional electoral framework. Perhaps the key to understanding Chile is the effort to grasp its distinctiveness in this regard, without succumbing to illusions about Chilean "exceptionalism." Could the hegemony of the country's ruling class, in a stable relationship with its U. S. patrons, be secured in the context of formal electoral democracy of the sort that prevails in the developed capitalist countries? Could the Chilean military function as an organic class fraction under the control of the capitalist political leadership, rather than as a quasi-autonomous stratum and a "loose cannon," following the widely prevalent Latin American model? These questions were put to the test with the Allende electoral victory on September 4, 1970.

If the constitutional democracy from the 1920s forward was a test of the possibility of a stable political/civil society configuration in the context of imperialist overlordship, the Popular Unity victory became a test of the inverse: was an electoral path to revolutionary social transformation possible in the same context?1

It would take too much space to recount the achievements of Popular Unity in its brief three years' existence. Within its first 20 months, the country's copper mines and other major industrial sectors were nationalized. Agrarian reform broke up the large estates and removed the enormous obstacle to social progress and income redistribution that these represented. Several dozen smaller laws and decress were enacted in the first year, providing, e.g., free milk to children, low-cost day care, public health initiatives, etc. The UP government institutionalized a degree of regular participation in the state by popular organizations, trade unions, and the población organizations (neighborhood associations of the urban and suburban poor), such as had (and has) not been seen elsewhere. The UP margin of electoral victory was at first quite narrow, and it did not have the votes in the Senate to pass several key economic and social reform laws vital to its program. This kept it from winning the support of many people in the middle strata, who were vulnerable to right-wing propaganda about the "lawlessness" of the UP. The UP was, however, gaining strength in local and then in mid-term congressional elections; as its cadre developed the skills and capacities to carry out its programs, this instilled greater confidence and support among those who insisted that everything be done within the framework of the constitution. This support in turn gave the UP greater political resources. Despite the unremitting hostility of the military, the oligarchy, and the U. S. government (which declared its intention to overthrow the UP almost from the latter's first days in power); despite well-financed destabilization efforts, from creation of terrorist cells to hysterical "journalism" of the sort offered by the daily El Mercurio, to the well-organized "pots and pans" demonstrations of the right, to creating the black market and fomenting business lock-outs and professional strikes (a tactic used much later against the Hugo Chávez government of Venezuela)2 -- despite all of this, Popular Unity was winning, and moving ever closer toward consolidating greater than 50% electoral support in the scheduled 1976 presidential election.

From the standpoint of the right, it was clear that the Allende government could not be allowed to complete its term in office. A clear electoral victory giving the President a second term, with a secure mandate to continue along the path of democratic social change, would have made this path all but irreversible. Thus -- the coup. I will not try to describe the intensification of destabilization and the dynamics leading up to September 11 here. I will only note that, using its ability to generate rising hysteria, the right proposed an illegal plebiscite; when Allende nevertheless agreed to this challenge and showed signs of gaining support of the middle sectors for allowing him to complete his term in office, the timing of the coup was moved forward, to the morning of the day on which the plebiscite was to have been announced.

The horror of the aftermath has been often described. President for Life Pinochet created an illegitimate regime that used terror as a strategic weapon, destroying in the process much of Chile's social infrastructure. The regime was profoundly unstable, a fact that had not escaped the attention of the U. S. State Department. The dictator was thus pressured to institute reforms, and his speech at Chacarilla in 1977 resulted in the promulgation of a new Constitution in 1980. Under this Constitution, Pinochet was to remain in power until 1997; elections were to be held in 1985; and an "Unmodifiable Fundamental Law" was to guarantee that the political process would be held within bounds that respected the privilege of the country's rulers. Capitalist hegemony classically arises organically with the emergence of capitalist class power; it is, in Gramsci's parlance, the instantiation of capitalist rule as the limit of the possible, as practiced and believed throughout society in everyday life, including political life. Now here we have an attempt to establish hegemony by means of brute political force backed up by military power -- in short, a regime of forced hegemony: neither a genuine pervasion of ruling-class values, in Gransci's sense, nor the brutal and insufficient repression of the period of the coup and its aftermath. This required a civilian-military coalition in power. It also meant removing from popular consciousness all memory, not only of the UP experience but also of the non-authoritarian constitutional democracy out of which the UP had sprung, based on the Constitution of 1925. It bears repeating that the dictatorship sought to destroy 50 years of peaceful progressive change, not just the three years of Popular Unity.

1. Chile was not the first country to probe this question. The first elected Marxist in Latin America was Dr. Cheddi Jagan of British Guiana, who won election in 1962. Dr. Jagan's People's Progressive Party was undermined and destabilized, and the British made it abundantly clear that its permanent removal from power would be the condition for Guyanese independence, granted in 1965. The PPP was narrowly defeated in 1964, in an election marked by media hysteria, intimidation and well-documented ballot-counting fraud; Dr. Jagan nevertheless peacefully stepped down. When there is talk about whether or not Marxists "respect the rules of the ballot box," the experiences of Guyana and Chile should be remembered. We also have plentiful experience with the disrespect for the ballot box in capitalist contexts -- witness the 2000 presidential election in the United States -- but that is another story.

2. Commentators at the time sneered at the "Marxist propensity to create scarcity" whenever they (Marxists) come to power. I note that this charge reverses the usual worship at the altar of scarcity that is typical of neoclassical economic thought. The real point, however, is that the "scarcity" experienced by people who had had easy access to goods before, was a result of the fact that large sectors of the population now could acquire them for the first time! The question, of course, is: scarcity for whom? This point is made forcefully in a working paper by Carlos Molina, "Political History of Chile, 1970-1990," to which I am indebted for many specific arguments and illustrations in this essay.


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