Wednesday 23 July 2008

Chile: Reform and Revolution

As part of the weekend's Socialist Party cadre school, I attended a commission on the lessons of the 1970-3 period of the Popular Unity government in Chile. I know lead-offs on the Chilean events have become more or less a ritual incantation against the dangers of reformism, but it still remains one of those key moments in working class history, rich in lessons for every socialist, whether they live under a reforming populist-left government or not. Paul Gerrard gave us the background.

The previous 1964-70
Christian Democrats came to power on the 'revolution in liberty' programme, a radical (for a centre-right party) manifesto promising land reform and nationalisation of key industries. However once the CDs were in power their promises were considered inadequate by the left and excessive by more conservative sections of the Chilean bourgeoisie. Having raised the expectations of the working class and peasantry, their failure to deliver produced a wave of opposition that could only be repressed with financial aid and troops from Uncle Sam.

It then came as something as a shock to the ruling class that the CDs were dumped from office by the five party PU coalition. The former's 56% vote fell by half to 28% while the left managed 36%. The two key currents in PU were
Salvador Allende's social democratic Socialist Party and the Chilean Communist Party. In many ways the latter pursued a proto-Eurocommunist course. It was then virtually unique for having carried out a systematic critique of the Third International under Stalin, but had come to popular frontist conclusions. In a way this is understandable. Approximately 46% of Chilean society were working class so any socialist strategy required an alliance between certain classes and class fractions. However, the PCC went a step further and theorised that a section of the Chilean ruling class was 'progressive'. The political consequence of this was the PCC worked to rein in more radical demands and independent activity of the workers and followed the PS's constitutional reformism in the name of not wanting to scare this phantom group of capitalists away.

But this was not the only reason for caution. The PU's commitment to reformist politics meant its programme could be partially stymied by parliamentary arithmetic - remember, the coalition only won just over a third of the popular vote. But also the right did not have the two thirds majority necessary to grind the government's programme to a halt. This meant a series of progressive measures were instituted, such as rent freezes, wages and pensions increases, the setting up of comprehensive education and free milk for schools. It is small wonder then that mid-term city mayoral elections saw a 51% vote for the PU returned. In the face of growing opposition to their rule, the bourgeoisie began to panic. Their withdrawal of capital and investment overseas sparked economic paralysis, which in turn fuelled spiralling inflation - but this was tackled by nationalising the banks, state intervention in the economy and a programme of public works. This had the net result of increasing productivity and reducing unemployment - proof that pressing the nuclear protest button of capital strike can be overcome by a bold package of radical policies.

As the ruling class increased its opposition to the administration the working class were emboldened too. For example, when a CIA-backed protest of truck drivers paralysed the country a PU-sponsored demonstration brought one million workers out onto the streets of Santiago. It spurred the movement further, encouraging the development of neighbourhood supply committees on top of the widening emergence of cordones, or workers' councils. They helped co-ordinate factory occupations, backed land seizures, and defended these gains from police attack.

Unfortunately, though PU had strengthened the revolutionary dynamic in Chilean society, in the main it stood apart from the cordones. It was too wedded to constitutionalism and did not have a strategy for intervening in them or how to harness their revolutionary energies. Without knowing what to do with this movement the government remained 'neutral', with tragic consequences. When you have a situation approaching dual power, where the power of the ruling class is confronted by the rising class power of organised workers and their allies there is no middle way. You either come down on one side or the other, or risk getting crushed by the titanic forces their clashing unleashes.

And so it was with PU. From 1972 the ruling class stepped up its efforts to bring Allende down. A plebiscite against PU failed, attracting 54%, which was well short of the two thirds majority needed. There were rumours of coups and actual purges of the military of PU supporters. To try and placate opposition from this quarter Allende accepted three generals into his cabinet and received assurances the military would abide by the constitution. What he didn't do was act on pleas from the workers that demanded he arm the movement. 

We all know what happened next. A CIA-backed coup led by general Augusto Pinochet deposed PU on September 11th, 1973. Allende died, arms in hand, defending the presidential palace. The workers' movement, the radical middle class and rebellious peasants were crushed, and thousands were "disappeared" over the next 15 years under the military regime he instituted.

Need it have been this way? Instead of usual question and answers a series of thought experiments were posed. If we were part of a revolutionary current with a large following in the cordones, what kind of strategy would we try to develop to take the revolution forward? We had four strategic obstacles to consider. First, how would we try and win over wavering middle class elements? The consensus was a number of demands, some of which were implemented by PU, some not. The nationalisation of the banks could make cheap credit available to small businesses, and the argument made the programme of public works meant they were operating in a more benign environment. The second would be to invite middle class elements to participate in the condones, breaking down barriers between them and the workers by virtue of rubbing shoulders with them in an unfolding political process. The key objective is to convince them they have more of a stake in the victory of the revolution than its crushing under the military boot.

The second concerned the armed forces. It may be a Marxist cliche, but Engels' observation that bourgeois class power rests on "armed bodies of men" was tragically confirmed in Chile. So how to overcome it? The discussion drew on the experience of the Bolsheviks in the Russian revolution - our current would have attempted to fraternise as much as possible with the army. It would have encouraged cordones to send delegations to barracks to invite them to participate, or set up their own, or at the very least obtain a commitment from them not to take action against the civilian population. Against ruling class agitation that would no doubt use socialist opposition to the armed forces as a weapon against the movement, we would undertake to guarantee their livelihoods by offering (radicalised) soldiers places in the emerging armed power of the workers, or transform the standing army into a (voluntary) army of labour post-revolution. At every moment our demands and actions aim to prise the armed forces out of the grip of the generals.

The third problem is the tricky issue of constitutionalism, specifically the counterrevolutionary congress that acted as a "legitimate" and legal source of opposition to the revolution. How this issue is handled can affect wider consciousness, depending on the balance of class forces. As things were on a knife edge in 1973 any demand to effectively disperse congress could drive large numbers into the camp of reaction. After all, with the exception of eight years between 1924-32 Chile has, from 1891, been a parliamentary democracy. It is reasonable to assume liberal-democratic norms have struck deep roots within the population. The task of revolutionaries in this situation is to win the battle of democracy by being the most consistent champions of it, so it cannot be used in defence of continued class rule. We suggested our demands would be two-fold. First, hold new elections. Mass radicalisation and the favourable results from the mayoral contests suggest PU could have been returned with a 50% plus majority. Secondly and running together with this would be the call to convene a constituent assembly, where we would argue the formal abolition of 'official' parliamentary democracy in favour of a council convened of cordones deputies should take place. Of course revolutions are no respecter of constitutional niceties - such as the two thirds majority needed by the constitution to convene a constituent assembly, but taking up this demand arms the revolution with the legitimacy of being steeped in Chilean political tradition.

Finally, how to organise against economic resistance from within and without? As we have seen, the ruling class and foreign investors withdrew their capital, plus the United States in the person of the Nixon administration had been fuelling counterrevolution internally and working to restrict Chile's economic links with the rest of the world. For a reformist government under economic threat, PU did respond strongly but not decisively enough. In the cordones we would have agitated for an extension of the nationalisation programme, but under the
democratic control of the workers themselves. In other words, their resistance is countered by deepening our power by extending the authority of the cordones through occupation and expropriation, and calling for a state monopoly on foreign trade. Allende's economic policy in 1973 started to bare fruit despite the economic attack on Chile, but under the direction of working class self-governance, the effects would have been even more electrifying.

This exercise is, of course, fantasy politics. There's no telling now how a weighty tendency armed with a programme articulating these sorts of demands would have done. Chile was not simply a matter of having the wrong leadership, though of course this was a powerful factor among many. But hopefully what the session showed was despite the national peculiarities of Chile at a certain point in history, there are general lessons that can be drawn to illuminate current and future revolutionary struggles, lessons that can help us go into the fight armed with the knowledge of what's gone before and a strategy that can avoid a disastrous rerun of the past. History does not always repeat itself as farce.

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