50 years after the coup against Allende: Lessons from the Chilean revolutionary movement

Oct 22, 2023

This Liberation News article was originally published on September 11, 2023.


In September 1970, Salvador Allende became the first Marxist president democratically elected with a socialist program of government. Today marks the 50th anniversary of his overthrow in a CIA-backed civic-military coup that ushered in a blood-soaked fascist dictatorship led by General Augusto Pinochet. This coup is rightly remembered as one of the most infamous crimes of U.S. imperialism. It brought to an end a period of vibrant people’s movements that was transforming Chilean society. This period, and the coup that overthrew Allende, is filled with lessons that are crucial to study a half century later.

Allende was the leader of the coalition Popular Unity (UP), formed by communists, socialists,

and a Marxist faction of the Christian Democrats, seeking an electoral path towards socialism. These Chilean Marxist political parties and popular movement reached this victory in the middle of a major crisis of U.S. imperialism and the Bretton Woods world economic order, which also indicated the final crisis of the project of import substitution industrialization for the economic development of the country. Winning the elections was not an easy task. It was the result of decades of accumulation of power within popular movements and political parties.

Once in office and without the absence of contradictions, Allende’s government produced a massive leap forward for the popular organizations, both political and social. Land takeovers among shantytown organizers, Mapuche Indigenous people and peasants, and the educational reform and revolutionary ideologies in universities and high schools, set the social movement in a new stage. In this stage, the question of conquering power was at the center of people’ lives. Thus, the events that unfolded during the Popular Unity years mark both the consolidation of decades of accumulation of power and the overcoming of that development to reach higher stages.

With the U.S.-backed coup d’etat of September 11, 1973, the Chilean ruling class started a long civic-military dictatorship to put a definite end to the popular movement’s long development. The bloody repression of 1973-1989 and the early reorganization of the whole country under neoliberal rule since 1975 were not only a response to Allende’s government or socialist ideas, but also against the power of the people that, at that point, was uncontainable.

Waves of protests

The database on social unrest of the Global Social Protest group (Arrighi Center) led by the sociologists Beverly Silver and Sahan Karatasli can be used to illustrate the development of the Chilean popular movement within a longer time period. The method to measure civil unrest in a specific country is to count the number of mentions per year in the international section of the newspapers The New York Times and The Guardian between the period of 1850 and 2017. A  year is considered a major wave of unrest if the number of articles published is 1.5 times bigger than the average of the previous five years and twice the annual average of the period. The table below shows the waves identified using this method:

Using this method, we find that almost all major waves of unrest are concentrated between the Great Depression of 1929 and the coup d’etat of September 11, 1973. Although discontinuous in time, the waves of unrest are the schools of revolutionaries, thus making the Chilean movement and organizations more mature wave after wave in tandem with its political development. Together, these decades constituted a long period of strengthening for the popular movement, providing the infrastructure for transforming Marxist ideology into a material force in the hands of the people.

The crisis for U.S. imperialism between 1967 and 1973 — as it was being defeated in Vietnam — triggered in Chile a new stage in the popular movement and class struggle. Until 1967, the legal ways of mobilizing, such as legal strikes and demonstrations, predominated over the illegal ones. But that started to change that year, particularly among the shantytown dwellers and peasants, who increasingly engaged in land takeovers. This turn of events did not fully stop until the coup d’etat. Permanent mass mobilization prevailed for six years.

Marxist parties

As with the popular movement, the Marxist parties also have a long history of development. The Communist and Socialist parties were founded in 1922 and 1932, respectively, leaving behind the influence of anarchist ideas coming from the late 19th century. In 1938, these parties reached the government as part of the Popular Front, which was the second that triumphed in the world after Léon Blum’s in France. The Marxist parties remained in the Popular Front governments, until reaching a crisis with the U.S.-backed exclusion, illegalization, and persecution of the Communist Party (CP) from 1948 until 1958.

While the CP was still illegal, in 1956 leftist parties, mainly the Communist and Socialist parties, formed the electoral coalition FRAP (Frente de Acción Popular) and chose Salvador Allende as their candidate. In 1958, Allende obtained 28% of the votes, just 3 points below the right-wing winner, José Alessandri. In 1964, the forces of FRAP believed that the victory was close at hand. Nevertheless, the right-wing and centrist forces joined their efforts in one candidate, the U.S.-backed Eduardo Frei Montalva, winning the election with 58% support, plunging the FRAP into a crisis. The UP emerged from the reorganization of the political forces after this defeat.

In this context, the Marxist left arrived to the imperialist and national crises of the late 1960s with a proven candidate, Salvador Allende, and a strong experience in electoral politics. They were prepared to propose a government to take Chile out of the crisis and achieve economic development and democracy.

In tandem with the consolidation of the Marxist left engaged in electoral politics, new parties were built criticizing the reformist leadership of the CP and, partially, the Socialist Party (SP). Representing Marxist Christians, the Popular Unitary Action Movement (MAPU) and Christian Left (IC) separated from the U.S-backed Christian Democrats in 1969 and 1971, respectively. On the side, the defeat of Allende in 1964 triggered the convergence of many small revolutionary groups in 1965 to form a new political party inspired in the Cuban Revolution, the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR). MAPU and IC joined the UP, while the MIR extended critical support to the government without ever joining it.

During the late 1960s, the political parties were transformed by the class struggle, which expresses itself in the splits from bourgeois parties, the reorganization of the electoral coalition of Marxist parties, and the formation of a revolutionary party — the MIR — that consistently refused to accumulate power in the institutions of the bourgeoisie, including the executive branch of the state. This process got radicalized with the development of the popular movement during the government of Salvador Allende, particularly the eruption of what the MIR called the urban and rural poor, i.e., shantytown dwellers and peasants, Mapuche, and rural workers.

The people’s protagonism

During the late 60s and early 70s, class struggle intensified and the popular movement led militant actions—marches, strikes, occupations in urban and rural areas of the country. This was a lively period of organization, struggle, and resistance from below at all levels of Chilean society. Hundreds of thousands of poor and working people were fighting day to day throughout the country to push for a more just and dignified life. There were many historical milestones that marked the popular movement of that epoch and that illustrate the level of organization and class and political consciousness that were built in those years.

The multiple mass organizations that were formed to struggle against the Chilean ruling class and imperialism emerged even before the Popular Unity took power. Allende’s government listened to people’s demands as they pushed the state for more radical change, and arguably he was able to assert the people’s protagonism in the construction of a socialist society in Chile. To understand the role of the social movement in the process of building a new society based on socialist principles, it is essential to look into four revolutionary subjects that constituted the popular movement of that time, and the tactics they used to fight for their demands.

During the period 1967-1973 there was a revolutionary alliance across all the political actors, including shantytowns organizers (pobladores), workers, campesinos, Mapuches, and students from high schools and universities. They wer alle part of the Chilean popular movement and played a decisive role in building a socialist society, especially during the Popular Unity years. The organizations and class struggle deepened as the political consciousness of an entire society grew more with each day. In this context, the political parties were forced to reorient their political strategy, tactics, and involvement with the people’s movements. As a result, parties reached a higher level of synthesis in their analysis and praxis.

Shantytown organizers: The pobladores movement grew in the Popular Unity years, and repression against land takeovers significantly decreased as well as evictions. They intensified and expanded their mobilizations and direct actions, specifically the land takeovers and occupations of units in apartment buildings. Pobladores formed political alliances with parties and state institutions to win their demands for home ownership and expansion of the government’s housing policies. In 1971 there were 238 shantytowns in the capital Santiago. In Valparaíso and Concepción, there were also housing struggles with a record of 244 and 588 mobilizations, respectively, between 1970 and 1973. After a land takeover, and the formation of a shantytown, the struggle shifted towards solving the issue of infrastructure and urbanization, such as water, lighting, transportation, health and education services. The shanty towns developed highly organized internal political structures that aimed to build popular power at a local level. This happened primarily through both the unhoused committees and neighborhood associations. The level of organization was determined by the political direction and parties involvement (CP, SP, CD, MIR).

Workers: During the 1960s, workers struggled for fair wages and better working conditions. The tactics used were mostly strikes at factories, and general strikes at a national level. These actions were intensely repressed by the Christian Democrat government. Nonetheless, workers continued to intensify their direct action towards the end of the decade, and started to organize occupations in factories and other production centers, which constituted genuine experiences of workers’ control of the production process. In this class struggle, workers’ territorial control was embraced. Construction workers took over construction sites, public transit workers took over parking lots where buses were parked, and public employees took over their offices. A quintessential example of this period was the so-called cordones industriales (industrial belts), which were territorial coordination organizations among workers of a specific geographical area, of several dozen factories, companies, and unions. Each cordon was made up of a group of companies or factories that coordinated the struggle of workers in the same area. Their relevance lies in the fact that they were an example of early stages of dual power. Workers took decisive control of their future, both politically and at the production level, and did not wait for the government or other political actors to direct their actions. Towards the end of the Popular Unity, the cordones industriales were the heart of the revolutionary struggle.

Campesinos and Mapuches: The agrarian reform initiated in 1962 facilitated the emergence of the campesino movement at a national level and it was strengthened by the Peasant Unionization Law in 1967. One form of organization of the campesino movement were the “Peasant Community Councils” (CCC) with the goal of uniting all of the campesinos. They were a tool for class struggle and to expand the agrarian reform. The main tactic used to fight for their demands was corrida de cercos or fence runs, and takeovers of farms. The campesinos also formed an historical alliance with the Mapuche people’s movement. Despite both sectors having their own political demands, they united forces against the landowners to reclaim their lands and to end the unequal distribution of lands and historical injustices that impacted their livelihoods. The most notable organization of this alliance was the Campesino Revolutionary Movement (MCR), led by the MIR. The MCR proposed an insurrectionary strategy for the dissolution of the latifundium (large estates), a stage that was considered key for the implementation of a socialist land tenure system.

Lessons for today

The Popular Unity marked a period of Chilean history unlike any other. Ultimately, it proved not possible to chart a parliamentary course to socialism that relied on electoral means and the state institutions — the power of the bourgeoisie had to be replaced with the power of the proletariat. The popular movement was in its second leap forward (1967-1970 and 1970-1973), but the reformist forces of the Popular Unity lacked trust in the prospect of building a socialist project rooted in people’s organizations, and failed to prepare them to face the counterrevolution. Many of the popular and political forces, including the cordones industriales leaders within Allende’s own government, warned of what was coming. This was clear to revolutionaries and some reformists as well. The working-class and popular movement was not equipped with the military tools to take a turn into the armed struggle and combat the coup, thus thousands of the most heroic fighters for the Chilean working class were massacred. The Popular Unity government was instead in a position where it attempted to elevate “constitutionalist” generals, ironically leading to the appointment of Pinochet to lead the armed forces by Allende himself. They believed that in Chile the military would subordinate themselves to the political power of the Popular Unity administration, instead of the bourgeoisie and imperialist forces. When the coup arrived, everyone was unprepared.

Now, in Chile, we are in a phase that is radically different from the times of the Popular Unity. We are not at the end of a long period of power accumulation. The recent emergence of an ultra-right-wing force under the leadership of fascistic politician José Antonio Kast has multiplied the defeatism that has come from the retreat of popular forces in the years following the heroic 2019 uprising, leaving leftists and people’s cadre grasping for political direction to continue the struggles.

In the 50th year since the coup d’etat, we must bring forward the historical lessons from these times where the people were the protagonists of their lives. The popular movement was leading class struggles on all fronts, united in the conviction that the only path towards justice and dignity is the rule of the people. The most politically conscious and organized poor and working class of Latin America was destroyed by U.S. imperialism and the national bourgeoisie, but its memories and experiences cannot be fully erased—our struggles of the present and future will make sure of it. Today, in a world where the capitalist and imperialist crisis keeps deepning, the Chilean experience of building towards a socialist society can give us the hope that the future must and will be popular.

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

In celebration of International Workers Day or May Day Liberation School is republishing "Socialism an integral part of U.S. history" by Eugene Puryear. Originally published in 2010 as a response to the mobilization of anti-communist propaganda against Obama to paint...

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

In celebration of International Workers Day or May Day Liberation School is republishing "Socialism an integral part of U.S. history" by Eugene Puryear. Originally published in 2010 as a response to the mobilization of anti-communist propaganda against Obama to paint...