Chile in the 1970s: Historical commentary from the Trotskyist press

Nov. 2019 Allende supporters
Trade unionists march in Santiago in September 1964 in support of Salvador Allende, the Socialist Party’s candidate for president. Allende lost that election to the Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei but won the presidency six years later.


With the re-emergence of a massive class struggle in Chile, the analysis provided by Trotskyists and other revolutionaries of the failures of the Chilean government under Salvador Allende in the early 1970s is critically important.

Intercontinental Press, published by the Socialist Workers Party in the U.S. during that period, was a journal that oriented toward building a class-struggle left wing in social movements around the world. As a contribution to today’s discussions, we have distilled some of the main lessons from that publication’s reporting on the revolutionary upsurge in Chile in the 1970s.

The Socialist Workers Party and its international cothinkers had fundamental criticisms of the Popular Unity (Unidad Popular, UP) government led by Salvador Allende. Every step of the way, they showed that a “popular front” based on the unity of working-class forces with “progressive” capitalists could pave the road for a bloody defeat. They also used the opportunities provided by the living class struggle to put forward transitional demands aimed at winning over broad sections of the working class to revolutionary perspectives, gave space in their press to Trotskyist tendencies within the Chilean movement, and were able to educate their readers in the ABCs of the Marxist theories of the state, the revolutionary party, and permanent revolution.

Even before the election of Allende, Intercontinental Press covered developments in the Chilean class struggle with a high level of depth and precision. Topics included the development of leftist groupings in Chilean trade unions[1], Fidel Castro’s criticisms of the Christian Democratic Party under President Eduardo Frei[2], analyses of Chilean elections[3], and much more. A full picture was given of all the different tendencies on the left in their orientation to building working-class power. This practice did not end with the election of Allende nor with the U.S. imperialist-backed onslaught against him in 1973, which led to the military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

Allende’s election

The first article written on the topic after Allende’s election was “End of the ‘Revolution in Liberty’” by Les Evans in the Sept 14, 1970, edition of Intercontinental Press. That article began with an overview of the mechanics and recent background of the Chilean election process, including mobilizations and counter-mobilizations in the streets after the election, before delving into the class composition of the coalition that supported Allende. The author showed that while the Socialist and Communist Parties together held the most seats in the UP bloc, the largest single grouping was the “bourgeois liberal” Radical Party.

Nov. 2019 Allende
Allende speaks at a rally.

Evans went on to say that “the current election does not represent a sharp shift to the left” in the electoral arena, and “what is new” was in fact a split in bourgeois consensus over Frei. The article ended with the warning that while “Allende’s program is more radical on paper than that of the Popular Front of 1938 … it remains to be seen what his bourgeois allies, present and prospective, will allow him to put into practice.”

Soon afterward, the Oct 5, 1970, issue of IP carried an article by a Chilean, Alfredo Garcia, titled “Behind Allende’s Electoral Victory,” which had been written on the eve of the elections. The article went into extensive yet concise detail about the emergence of the particular political and economic conjuncture in Chile that might allow for the election of Allende[4]. Garcia detailed the quasi-opposed interests of the different sectors of national capitalists. The mine-owning monopolists and large land-owners were on one side, maintaining their traditional power with a reliance on support from the peasantry; the emerging industrialists and urban capitalists (which the Christian Democratic Party largely represented) were on the other.

His analysis pointed out that although the Christian Democrats had gained great influence among the population through their bourgeois-democratic reformist program, they had shown themselves unable to significantly raise the country out of poverty or to free it from domination by imperialism.

Garcia showed that the election reflected a massive upsurge in working-class, peasant, and student activity. With this in mind, Garcia qualified the creation of the UP as a “step backwards for the Chilean workers movement” and stated that “if Salvador Allende wins, we will see the formation of a worker-bourgeois coalition government, which under cover of party politics, will block authentic mass participation in the administration of the country and will defend the capitalist structure.”

The article ended with two sections, “Threat of Counterrevolution” and “Military Coup?” which hammered home the necessity of constructing a political leadership that would be capable of opposing the inevitable vacillations and compromises of the UP. While the “ranks are on the march,” Garcia wrote, the UP “leaders are trying to deflect this thrust into the electoral arena,” but because of the mass mobilization of the class that has led to the UP in the first place, the bosses are consolidating their own strength in order to alter the balance of power in a way that can only be resolved through civil war.

Therefore, Garcia called for the arming of the workers, while pointing out that the reformist parties refused to take that step. The alarm with which the imperialists viewed Allende’s government did not stem principally from any threat to direct imperialist interests that the coalition government might have posed, but rather by the threat to the local capitalist class that the workers’ self-activity, which the UP was a damper on, signified.

One final important article from the period during and immediately following the 1970 election was “Student Declaration on Chilean Elections,” which put forward a strategy of a tactical alliance with the UP against a rightist coup through the formation of Committees Against Reaction and for Socialism. The SWP would not, I do not believe, have agreed with all of the formulations in that document, but found it important to show concrete examples of what key groups were actually doing on the ground.

Unidad Popular in power

A major focus of the Intercontinental Press coverage of Allende’s presidency was to expose his inability to lead the struggle against the national and imperialist capitalist classes, while also pointing to the class forces that could, with the aid of revolutionary leadership, actually lead the struggle to victory.

In the Oct 5, 1970, IP, Les Evans already was exposing Allende’s backing down from his own campaign promises[5]. Evans also used the opportunity to show the actual class politics of nationalization, namely that a large portion of Chile’s major industries and even the finance sector were already under state ownership.

The highest point of popular electoral support for the UP was in April 1971, when the coalition took a majority of seats in the National Assembly. Alongside this gain for the popular front, IP was highlighting the possibility that the positive changes resulting from the Allende presidency “could simply be the ransom the bourgeoisie had to pay to curb the powerful mass mobilization which assured the UP success in the elections” and that imperialism was changing its strategy and tactics of how it carried out the exploitation of the neocolonial world.[6]

On May 10, 1971, Intercontinental Press carried an analysis first published by Rouge, the newspaper of the Fourth International’s section in France, the League Communiste, and titled “After the April Municipal Elections.”[7] That article, by Jean-Pierre Beauvais, stated very clearly again that all of the reforms established by Allende in fact were in direct continuity with the pro-imperialist governments before him. It read, “In no case do [these reforms] represent a change, not even an incipient one, in the class nature of the Chilean state. In no case do they strike at the essential economic base of the Chilean bourgeoisie” and went on to provide a short but thorough multi-sectoral overview of the Chilean economy in relation to imperialism.

The next page was spent mostly in discussing the internal politics of the UP. Beauvais showed that while the CP remained reformist, due to the general process of political radicalization in the country the left wing of the SP had grown considerably—including a grouping called the National Liberation Army (ELN).

The author reported that the SP had adopted resolutions that talked of mass mobilizations for class struggle. However, because of its role as a “government party,” and “at the request of Allende and his ministers,” these resolutions were kept secret from the masses “in order not to provoke the bourgeoisie!” Groupings like the ELN were “torn between maintaining minimum discipline to the party and taking up the far-from-resolved problem of concretely arming the Chilean workers, as called for by their strategic analysis, and that’s without mentioning the organizational weaknesses inherent in this kind of ambiguous situation.”

Beauvais continued by showing that Allende would have to resort to implementing austerity and further demobilizing the working class, justifying the imperialists’ “wait and see” posturing. He stated that the MIR (Movement for the Revolutionary Left) might have been a key element in providing a revolutionary leadership for workers and peasants, but its ambiguous politics—at first believing that it would be impossible for the UP to win the elections, and then partially subordinating itself to the Allende forces—had weakened its influence.

The year 1972 was when the SWP/FI’s predictions came true that relative peace with the bourgeoisie would be short lived and that Allende would become the mediator between imperialism and the Chilean working class. In the very first issue of the year, Intercontinental Press ran a long statement from the MIR denouncing the UP’s allowance of class collaboration within the government. It ended with a unity program put forward by the MIR for the Chilean left: “To expropriate all North American investments in Chile! To win all the big factories for the people! For workers’ control of production in small and medium sized industry! To expropriate all the big building companies! To build a national construction trust!”[8]

In April, the first outright imperialist attempt at bringing down the UP government was exposed in IP by David Thorstad.[9] The pages of our movement’s papers had always stated that imperialism would do what it could to put a damper on the mass mobilizations that brought Allende to power, so the half-hearted attempt to block his election outright by a sector of U.S. capitalism came as no surprise.

The effort to overthrow Allende

On May 15, 1972, Intercontinental Press printed “Reaction Opens Offensive Against Allende,” which detailed a mass mobilization of the right. The first paragraph stated, “This offensive demonstrated the total failure of the reformist schemes that envisage the working class in Chile taking power through elections and by using the bourgeois state apparatus”[10]. After detailing the conditions and politics that led to the right’s rising up to show its strength, the article discussed Allende’s betrayals of working-class demands, his general non-response to and lack of leadership for mass mobilizations, and the need for building a revolutionary party. This latter point was taken up in a critical discussion of the MIR, which is described as “empiricist” and without a program. Despite its major imperfections, it was taken seriously as an organization fighting against reformism on the ground.

Nov. 2019 Chile repression 1973
Many thousands of leftists and trade-union activists were arrested, tortured, and killed following the U.S.-supported coup led by Augusto Pinochet on Sept. 11, 1973.

The reporting and analysis from Intercontinental Press for the rest of 1972 continued in this way, going back and forth from the developments of the mounting capitalist offensive, the bankruptcy of reformism in all its concrete manifestations, and the details of left-wing party politics. In reporting on the bourgeois “strike” of October, (Oct. 30, 1972) David Thorstad showed Allende’s fundamental strategic weakness being realized in his dependence on the loyalty of the military and what became a unilateral repression of the left.[11] This followed a year of reporting on the Chilean police and military being used to violently put down demonstrations for workers’ rights and against imperialism.[12]

The pace and urgency in denouncing Allende in every concrete case became even more resounding as the coup-seekers became fully mobilized in 1973. The focus was always on the self-activity of the working class against both the reformist government and the local and imperialist capitalist class. During the first coup attempt in June, representatives of the working-class parties signed a united statement calling for the socialization of “all plants,” production and distribution in the hands of the workers, and a popular milita whose victory could only be assured if its leadership was in the hands of the working class.

In that same issue, IP published a “Statement by Vicuna Mackenna Cordon” (an elemental soviet-type organization based in the trade unions and community organizations) that similarly called for massive assemblies of workers to discuss their program on how to fight imperialism, socialize all production and distribution, and regulate the political life of the country, including stopping distribution of the bourgeois press.[13]

In a spectacular historical coincidence, the first September issue of Intercontinental Press was published on Sept. 10, 1973, one day before the coup that killed Allende and implemented the reign of terror under Pinochet. That issue had three major articles on Chile. Two addressed the situation during and after the June coup attempt, “Why the June 29 Coup Attempt Failed” by Eduardo Gonzales and “In the Aftermath of the Attempted Coup” by Hugo Blanco. The first article placed the failure of the coup on the general balance of class forces in the country. The coup failed not because of the UP but in spite of it.

Ultimately, “On June 29, the Chilean masses first looked on, stupefied, as the events unfolded, and then saw themselves powerless and shackled by their leaders.” This situation led the “more lucid” bourgeoisie to realize that “for imperialism and the bourgeoisie as a whole—aside from the most desperate of the reactionary sectors—the Popular Unity government and the CUT are for now the only guarantee of the continued existence of the capitalist system in Chile.”

Many, perhaps most, workers understood what this near defeat meant. They drew major lessons from their own unpreparedness and continued the process that was becoming the nucleic formation of dual power. Peruvian Trotskyist leader Hugo Blanco, who had been in exile in Chile for the entire time of Allende’s rule, gave the contours of these developments. He showed that even the leadership of the major CUT union had to allow for factory takeovers due to the logic of the situation and the self-activity of workers all over the country. Unfortunately, the left-wing organizations were unable, or unwilling, to mobilize the workers against the growing rightist threat; the MIR foolishly denounced the Teniente miners’ strike as “fascist.”

Nevertheless, the workers, through their organization in the cordones industriales, were beginning for the first time to not only “own” production through nationalization but to run it in their own self-interest. Against this, the bosses began making demands to Allende that the factory takeovers slow down and that the emerging workers’ defense guards be disarmed.

The final article in this issue, and in fact in IP before the coup, was Gerry Foley’s “Counterrevolutionaries Step Up Pressure in Chile,” with the subtitle “Seek a ‘Brazilian’ or ‘Indonesian’ Solution.” Foley exposed the fact that while the right-wing press openly called for a coup and an “Indonesian Solution” to the problem of communism, Allende’s supposedly “constitutionalist” military commanders were carrying out raids of factories and workers’ districts searching for weapons. Despite the pleas to Allende from popular front newspapers like Chile Hoy, his political subordination to bourgeois legality and his “pragmatic” coalition with the national bourgeoisie and “constitutionalist” military officers resulted in the president’s supporting the torture of left-wing rank-and-file soldiers for opposing the coup against him.

Because of his inability to lead the workers, Allende had to rely on the military to end things like the corporate-incited truck drivers’ strike, yet since his basis of electoral legitimacy was in the working class, he could not completely capitulate to his transportation minister either. Foley reveals that major union leaders in the CP and SP offered to put a massive number of workers in action to end the truckers strike, yet Allende rejected this and relied only on the military.

For a mass revolutionary socialist party

The whole of the body of writing put out by Intercontinental Press, and often republished in the SWP’s weekly newspaper, The Militant, on the Chilean class struggle during Allende’s presidency maintained the line of building a working-class solution to the crisis based on a revolutionary program and with the guidance of a revolutionary party. Along with this, the SWP and the Fourth International never took the position that Allende or the popular front government could defeat imperialism in any meaningful way. Instead, the pages of Intercontinental Press expose both the capitalist plots to topple Allende and his utter incapacity to do anything about it. They detail the concrete reality of the masses of workers and peasants moving forward in their own mobilizations, with their own class organizations, and their being constantly dragged backwards by the UP.

An incredible documentation of this dynamic is available also in the documentary “The Battle for Chile”, where the viewer sees into an assembly in an industrial cordone in mid-1973. The UP bureaucrat tells the hundreds of workers gathered that the government cannot continue with factory takeovers because of negotiations for financing from Swiss capital.

In the current period, as before, the only solution that remains open to the Chilean working class in its fight against imperialist domination is the creation of a mass revolutionary party independent of the capitalist parties and under the leadership of the vanguard fighters of the working class. The path to this level of organization is laid with transitional demands born out of the Chilean class struggle itself, which give not one inch to the illusion that parties opting for conciliation with the capitalists can lead a fight to win against imperialist militarism or towards workers power.


[1] ‘Leftists Gain in Chilean Trade Unions’. World Outlook. Dec 16, 1966. Page 5.

[2] ‘Draw Your Own Conclusions’. World Outlook. Feb 17, 1967. Page 174.

[3] ‘Analysis of Chilean Elections’. Inprecor. Mar 24, 1969. Page 303.

[4] The article itself was written the night of the election, before the actual results were in.

[5] ‘Allende Shelves Criticism of Nixon’. Inprecor. Page 952

[6] ‘The Real Perspective Facing the Chilean Masses’. Inprecor. Pages 62-63.

[7] Authored by Jean Pierre Beauvais

[8] ‘MIR Call for Unity Against the Reactionary Offensive’. Inprecor. Page 20.

[9] ‘How ITT-CIA Plotted Coup Against Allende’. Inprecor. April 3, 1972. Page 356.

[10] Inprecor. May 15, 1972.

[11] ‘Chilean Army Moves to the Fore as Crisis Undermines Allende’. Inprecor. Oct 30, 1972. 1164.

[12] For example: ‘Break Up Pro-Vietnam Demonstration’. Inprecor. May 22, 1972.

[13] Both articles in ‘Chilean Workers Respond to the Threat of a Coup’. Inprecor. June 30, 1970. It is worth noting that the united left statement was co-signed by representatives of the CP, SP, Radical Party, Christian Left, and the Chilean Section of the FI

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