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Salvador Allende won mass support from the Chilean working class and the poor

The lessons from Chile 1970-73

Jimmy Haddow 

On the 4th September 1970, the left-wing leader and self-proclaimed Marxist – Salvador Allende – of the Chilean Socialist Party, was elected president. His election set in train a series of revolutionary events that ended in a bloody military takeover exactly three years and one week later. Why did this happen is still debated amongst socialists today?

Allende was the presidential candidate of a six party “Popular Unity” (UP) coalition, made up of the main workers’ organisations, the Socialist Party, Communist Party, smaller Left organisations and a middle class liberal party.

Allende’s election triumph was welcomed with incredible excitement, not only by the Chilean workers but by the international working class as well. It also took the Chilean ruling class completely by surprise, who were thrown into confusion after the result became clear.

Indeed not only did the ruling class not think the Left would win, they did not seriously develop a counter-revolutionary strategy until October 1972. Yet Allende and the UP coalition failed to use this vacuum to push social change and the revolution forward to its conclusion.

The forerunner of the Socialist newspaper – the Militant – commented in February 1972 that: “Chilean society teeters on the brink of crisis. The question is posed will the workers and peasants succeed in guaranteeing the gains of Allende’s government, by pressing forward to socialist revolution, or will reaction strike with ferocious vengeance?”

The UP leaders – guided by the ideas of the Communist Party – sought means to placate the so-called “liberal” section of the Chilean ruling class. They argued, falsely, that socialism could be won by a stage-by-stage transformation of society; national democracy first and socialism many years ahead.


Within weeks of forming the UP government, Allende introduced reforms under the class pressure of the Chilean masses, like free school milk and meals, higher wages, industrial democracy and land reform for the peasants and landless workers.

These actions speeded up the revolutionary processes, encouraging land occupations and factory takeovers by the workers. Major Chilean and American multinational companies – like the powerful copper mines owned by US companies – were nationalised, along with important sections of the banking industry.

Strategies were declared for the public ownership of nearly 100 companies, and by the time of the 11th September coup 40% of the Chilean economy was publicly owned. But that still left the majority of the economy in the hands of the capitalist class.

The poor, youth and working class of Chile supported Allende and the UP government in parliamentary elections, increasing their vote time after time. Extra-parliamentary activity to defend the reforms and revolution from national and international capitalism were also undertaken.

Every attempt at counter-revolution provoked a left radicalisation and mobilisation by the working class and poor.

The capitalists organised the first serious offensive in the second half of 1972 through an investment and food embargo and business ‘strike’.

However, the working class responded by establishing democratic workers’ councils called “Cordones Industriales” and democratic Peoples Supply Committees in the industrial towns and cities and shanty towns. These bodies organised and controlled goods and their distribution.

These examples of workers’ democracy, and in some cases management, was without the support of, and in many instances against, the UP government.

This terrified American imperialism and the Chilean capitalists and plans were made to overthrow the Allende government; first by a ‘white coup’ through parliamentary impeachment and then by a ‘black coup’ through a military takeover.

An accidental dress rehearsal took place in June 1973, with a section of the military – one of the tank regiments – took over the capital city, Santiago, but this provoked a massive reaction from the working class who came out on the streets all over Chile in support of Allende.

The more far-sighted representatives of the military and capitalists recoiled and ordered the regiment to stand down. The working class were calling for arms to defend the government.

However, Allende and the UP government did the opposite to what the working class were calling for and told the masses to stay calm and not provoke the capitalists. Allende even brought more generals into his cabinet – including his hangman, Pinochet.

Bit by bit these concessions to the capitalist and military elite allowed time for the counter-revolution to prepare. Even two days before the coup, when a million workers demonstrated their support for the government in an all-day protest in Santiago, the working class were calling Allende to arm them to defend the government. This did not happen.

On 11 September 1973 the coup took place and Allende was overthrown and eventually executed. Decades of military dictatorship followed with the murder and imprisonment of tens of thousands of workers, trade unionists, socialists and communists.

It could be asked today what have events that happened 45 years ago and on the other side of the world got to do with today? Over the past few years the rise of the ideas of left-wing populism have appeared around the world.

Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, Bernie Sanders in America, Jean-Luc Melenchon in France, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, known as AMLO, in Mexico. All of which have provoked welcome mass support from the working class and even middle class in their respective countries and beyond.

The lessons of Allende’s Chile from the early 1970s need to be learned because there is no piecemeal step-by-step means to end capitalism.

The national and international capitalist class will fight to the end to maintain their privileges and profits.

This means that left governments that come to power in the future need to understand that only a socialist programme that carries out the socialist transformation of society and eradicates capitalism will suffice to prevent any repeat of the 11 September 1973.