This coming September 11 will mark the fortieth anniversary of the coup overthrowing the elected government of Chile, a country that, at the time, enjoyed the longest enduring tradition of electoral stability in South America.

Despite the uninterrupted existence of a constitutional parliamentary system from 1932, the Chilean military—aided by US covert services—overthrew the President, Doctor Salvador Allende Gossens, and violently suppressed his supporters, installing a military junta that ruled for 26 years.

What prompted the US government and its traitorous allies in the Chilean military to destroy the fabric of Chilean civil society in 1973? What “sin” could possibly warrant the installation of a murderous, fascistic regime under the leadership of General Pinochet and his collaborators?

The answer is found in one word: socialism. Not the grafting of a tepid welfare safety net to the fringes of capitalism as promised by social democrats, not the “socialism” of workers’ token participation in management, not the bad faith of class collaboration or the regulation and management of a voracious and predatory profit system, but the real and robust pursuit of revolutionary and transformative change.

For Salvador Allende and Popular Unity– the coalition of Communists, Socialists, and other worker and peasant organizations that backed his election in 1970, the vote was the opening steps on the unique “Chilean road to Socialism,” a road that would hopefully lead to working class political power and social ownership superseding the private ownership of the leading economic enterprises and giant agricultural estates.

The Allende government pressed forward with its agenda, nationalizing key industries and creating new and parallel organizations and institutions of local and workplace power. Of course this did not go well with the wealthy and powerful in Chile or unnoticed by their North American allies. Millions of our tax dollars were devoted to funding counter-revolutionary groups and actions in Chile.

Provocative strikes were organized by middle-strata shop keepers, transportation owners, and managers to disrupt the economy. Demonstrations were instigated to bring sections of the middle strata—the “momios”—into the street in protest. SaboChile, a Revolution Deniedtage and vandalism were pressed. Even neo-Nazi terrorist groups were encouraged and funded by the CIA. And, of course, the US government did everything it could to isolate the Popular Unity government from international assistance, credits, and trade.

In the face of these provocations, Allende and his supporters urged workers and peasants to step forward in defense of the economy and the bourgeois democracy. And they did, in great numbers.

Thus, the expected rejection of Popular Unity in the elections of March, 1973 never materialized. Despite an unprecedented destabilization campaign, the Right was unable to muster enough votes to depose Allende. The only path left open to the enemies of popular power was the military coup. Six months later, Allende was dead and tens of thousands were about to be killed, jailed, tortured, disappeared or in hiding.

The Guzman Chronicles

It is rare to have a vivid and detailed account of such an important and tragic historical process. But thanks to the hours of video documentation secured by film maker Patricio Guzman, we can trace the powerful people’s movement that coalesced around Salvador Allende, the excitement and empowerment of the masses as they forged ahead, the hopes and disappointments of workers and the poor, and the betrayal and destruction of national aspirations. Guzman was a partisan of Popular Unity, yet open to recording the views and movements of the opposition. He captures the euphoria of workers and peasants finding their voices, the explosion of meetings and discussions of the formerly powerless, and the new-found confidence of the liberated.

His trilogy, The Battle of Chile (The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie, The Coup d’Etat, and Popular Power) is available on DVD (Icarus Films) along with the 1996 film (Chile, Obstinate Memory) of his return to Chile to show his work in the post-Pinochet era.

Guzman’s prescient sense of the significance of Popular Unity seemingly put him on every corner, in every demonstration, in the mines and factories, and in the seats of governance. The visual imagery of workers, peasants, and ethnic minorities in the tens of thousands rallying to the cause of Popular Unity is unforgettable. Conversely, the faces of the “momios” and the military leaders reflect the ugliness of both their fear and their arrogance. Nor will one will ever forget the footage of a camera operator filming his own death at the hands of a soldier.

Far better than the many written accounts of the Chile tragedy, Guzman’s films expose the truths of class and ethnic divisions without adornment. In most cases, one can identify whether an interviewee on the streets of Santiago supports or opposes Popular Unity before he or she even speaks. Class identity is transparent.

Yes, it is class war, conscious class war. But class war that the long-ruling oligarchs, the industrialists, landlords and their minions could only win with the intervention of the military and their powerful friends to the north.  

While the popular forces lost the battle of Chile, the collective memory of the peoples’ rising had to be extinguished before Chile could be returned to anything close to a “normal” bourgeois republic. For some time after elections were restored, Chile still lay in the shadows of the Generals, fearful of their return.

When Guzman arrived to present The Battle of Chile for the first time in his native land, he recorded the responses of a group of youth, both before the showing and after. Before the viewing and with only modest exceptions, the students mouthed the views received from Pinochet-era textbooks and documentaries.

They showed some sympathy for the conditions of the very poor that might move them to support Popular Unity, only to charge the partisans with impatience, irresponsibility, or poor judgment. The views expressed were remarkably similar to those one might encounter in an upper-middle class suburban school in the US.

When the lights came on after the screening, the students were visibly moved—some were reduced to tears, others spoke openly for the first time of relatives who were repressed.  Despite the concerted effort to remove the memory of Popular Unity, The Battle of Chile shocked the young people into a sympathetic encounter with their own history. This moment is captured vividly in Guzman’s Chile, Obstinate Memory.

A Vital Source

But the events of these three years, as revealed by the film and other chronicles, constitutes more than the nostalgia of those of us who placed so much hope in Popular Unity. Rather, the Chilean experience was a case study of the struggle to throw off the yoke of imperialism and capitalism.

This episode bore many features unique to the conditions existing at that time and the pathway chosen by the movement’s leaders. At the same time, the Chilean revolutionaries faced adversaries and obstacles that are universal in any profound social change. In short, we have much to learn from Chile’s tragedy.

Today’s militancy, emerging slowly, but inexorably from the crushing impoverishment and stark inequities spawned by the global crisis, constitutes a new and promising assault on wealth and power. However, a new generation of the angry and defiant risk failure and disillusionment unless it draws lessons from the successes and failures of the past. History is cruel to those who turn away from those lessons.

Only those who are terminally jaded can but admire the energy of the “Occupy” militants in the US and the “Indignados” in Europe. But any who view The Battle of Chile will quickly recognize that powerful ruling classes with far-reaching police, a sophisticated intelligence apparatus, and a modern military at their beck and call are not readily moved to surrender power and position to forces organized in open-air general assemblies or in urban street encampments.

Nor will they accommodate demands issued with the nobility of moral authority. Chile’s legacy reminds us that transformational change is about overcoming the nexus of economic and state power.

Recognition of the fusion of economic and state power in our time—what Marxists call “state-monopoly capitalism”—is essential to any credible assault on the fortress of wealth and privilege. To reach for state power, the majority must begin to disable the economic might wielded by the few. But to accomplish this, the many must act to take the power of the state that preserves and protects the economic basis of the ruling elites.

Solving these two challenges simultaneously is the task of revolutionaries. In Chile, Popular Unity hoped to meet the challenges by establishing loci of peoples’ organizations in neighborhoods and workplaces and nationalizing the heights of the economy. They understood that presidential power was only a fragile link to state power and far from sufficient to neutralize the economic might of the Chilean capitalists and their courtiers and attendants. Our modern day would-be revolutionaries are well-advised to grasp these realities.

The Battle for Chile is cold water in the face of so many erstwhile advocates of social justice who have turned to timid or utopian schemes to address a capitalist social system that has only become more aggressive and rapacious since the era of Chile’s interrupted revolution.

While the loss of a counter-force to the US and its allies—the European socialist community—has vastly strengthened the hand of global capitalism, it neither excuses nor justifies a retreat from an anti-capitalist program. We see alternative schemes emerging from those disillusioned with the politics of reformism, but uneasy with revolutionary politics; they advocate motley theories of “radical democracy,” cooperatives, “The New Economy,” various strains of anarchism and kindred rejections of “hierarchies,” among others.

Marx and Engels anticipated these developments over a century and a half ago when they wrote in the Communist Manifesto:

Historical action is to yield to their personal inventive action; historically created conditions of emancipation to fantastic ones; and the gradual, spontaneous class organisation of the proletariat to an organisation of society especially contrived by these inventors. Future history resolves itself, in their eyes, into the propaganda and the practical carrying out of their social plans.

In the formation of their plans, they are conscious of caring chiefly for the interests of the working class, as being the most suffering class. Only from the point of view of being the most suffering class does the proletariat exist for them.
The undeveloped state of the class struggle, as well as their own surroundings, causes [activists] of this kind to consider themselves far superior to all class antagonisms.

They want to improve the condition of every member of society, even that of the most favoured. Hence, they habitually appeal to society at large, without the distinction of class… For how can people, when once they understand their system, fail to see in it the best possible plan of the best possible state of society?

Hence, they reject all political, and especially all revolutionary action; they wish to attain their ends by peaceful means, necessarily doomed to failure, and by the force of example, to pave the way for the new social Gospel.

Such fantastic pictures of future society, painted at a time when the proletariat is still in a very undeveloped state and has but a fantastic conception of its own position, correspond with the first instinctive yearnings of that class for a general reconstruction of society…

They, therefore, endeavour, and that consistently, to deaden the class struggle and to reconcile the class antagonisms. They still dream of experimental realisation of their social Utopias, of founding isolated “phalansteres”, of establishing “Home Colonies”, or setting up a “Little Icaria” — duodecimo editions of the New Jerusalem — and to realise all these castles in the air, they are compelled to appeal to the feelings and purses of the bourgeois…

They, therefore, violently oppose all political action…; such action, according to them, can only result from blind unbelief in the new Gospel.

Revolutionaries must and will put these “castles in the air” behind them as the struggle for social justice sharpens.

And ahead are the many obstacles underscored by the Chilean events chronicled in Guzman’s film. Two critical problems of revolutionary theory that loom large in the battle for Chile are (1) the question of the military and other “security” organs and (2) the question of the “middle class.”

Clearly, Popular Unity failed to solve the problem of the military in 1973, though its leaders certainly recognized it. In our time, the near-coup in 2002 against President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela demonstrates the continuing dangers from those social elements holding a near monopoly on physical force: the military.

Like the police and other organs of social control, the military invariably align with those opposing change. Without Chavez’s uniquely strong links to long-cultivated and sympathetic elements of the military, the coup would have undoubtedly led to a bloody and uncertain outcome. Any real quest for transformative change must wrestle with this question.

The question of the “middle classes” is really the problem posed by those who occupy the social space between the ownership class (the 1%) and those conscious of their diminished status resulting from employment by or servitude to the ownership class. While those who occupy this space are, in reality, also subservient to the rich and powerful, they see their status as above the poor and working class and identify their aspirations with the fate of those who rule.

Labor leaders and other image shapers foster illusions about a broad and inclusive “middle class.” They offer the fantasy that auto workers and bus drivers have the same class interests as corporate lawyers and bond traders. In this imaginary world, their lives intersect at the shopping mall, the stadium, and the television set.

Of course they really don’t. Even arch conservatives like Charles Murray have concluded that this view is nonsense, but the view persists widely in the mainstreams of both the US and Europe.

The dangers of these illusions are demonstrated well in The Battle of Chile. The “momios” who provided a mass base for the opposition to Popular Unity would, by and large, have eventually benefited from the Chilean road to socialism. But seduced by the lure of consumerism, vulgar culture, crass individualism and the delusional promise of joining the ranks of the privileged few, they proved to be an enormous obstacle to advancing the Popular Unity program.

In the more prosperous capitalist countries, the problem of the middle strata is even more acute today. While Marx’s judgment that the “…individual members of this class… are being constantly hurled down into the proletariat…” may be somewhat affirmed by the global economic crisis, the fact remains that the middle-class world view is resilient and will persist for some time. Belief in personal exceptionalism, like belief in spirits, is a difficult deception to shed.

“To be young and a revolutionary is a biological imperative” was a piece of graffiti scrawled on a wall in Santiago and translated for me by my friend Kay when we visited Santiago in the fall of 1990. After Pinochet, this was a welcome inspiration for those of us who placed hope in the Chilean revolutionary process. But biology will only take revolutionaries so far without a study of history.

In fact, without heeding the lessons of history—in this case the Allende government and its violent suppression—the imperatives and energy of youth will dissipate and give way to cynicism and disappointment.

The Battle of Chile offers these hard lessons, but also profound inspiration.

January 21, 2013