1970s >> 1971 >> no-799-march-1971

Marxism in Chile?

Salvador Allende is not the first president of Chile to proclaim himself a revolutionary. When Allende’s predecessor, the Christian Democrat Frei, was elected in 1964 he pledged himself to a “revolution in liberty”. Two years later found him sending in the army to break a strike in the copper mines; eight people were killed. As Fidel Castro rather neatly put it: “He promised revolution without blood and has given blood without revolution.”

Like Allende, Frei was elected on the strength of his promises to solve two basic problems. Firstly the concentration of land in the hands of a few vastly wealthy families while 350,000 peasants have no land at all. And secondly the domination of Chile’s economy by foreign (mainly American) capital, which is held to be responsible for the chronic unemployment in the country (currently running at about 7 per cent.) and the destitution of a large section of the population (one half of all families live on less than thirty dollars a month).

Frei’s initial boast was that 100,000 landless peasants would be settled on their own farms. But his attempts at redistributing the land were firmly resisted by the great landowners and in the six years between 1964-70 less than a third of those who had been promised plots of land got them. Estimates of the number of peasants resettled vary considerably, from 18,600 families relocated (Economist, 12 September, 1970) to 30,000 families (Time, 19 October). Similarly American interests in Chile (total US capital in the country stands at about $1,000m. including more than $500m. in the copper mining industry) fought vigorously to avoid Frei’s tentative moves towards nationalization. The Christian Democratic programme involved such schemes as the ‘Chileanisation’ of the $200m. American-owned Anaconda Company, with the government arranging to buy 51 per cent, of the company’s stock, as well as putting pressure on foreign companies to promote more Chileans to top management posts.

Predictably enough, Frei’s inability to fulfil his promises and make any significant inroads on peasant and working class misery, while at the same time he scared conservative elements with his talk of land expropriation and nationalisation, led to a polarisation in Chile’s politics in the 1970 presidential election. The slump in the popularity of the Christian Democratic candidate (Frei had got an overall majority in 1964, while his party’s nominee — Tomic — got only 27.8 per cent, of the vote in September 1970) has been partly explained by the behaviour of the frightened landowners and others who switched their allegiance to the right wing candidate, Jorge Alessandri. But, of course, the landowners form only a tiny fraction of Chile’s population and for Alessandri to get the 34.9 per cent, of the votes which he did, he had to attract the support of hundreds of thousands of workers and peasants committed both to capitalism and the traditional form it takes in Chile. That this was the case is made quite clear by the fact that Alessandri topped the poll in Chuquicamata, the principal copper mining centre in the country and obviously therefore an area with a high concentration of workers.

No less committed to capitalism were the 36.3 per cent, of the voters who opted for the ‘Popular Unity’ candidate, Salvador Allende. Allende has built up a popular front around the so-called ‘Communist’ and ‘Socialist’ parties which also takes in the Radicals and a number of smaller organisations such as ‘Independent Popular Action’ and an offshoot from the Christian Democrats — the ‘Action Union for Popular Unity’. These movements have allied themselves on the basis of an extensive reform programme which, if carried through, will lay the foundation for a restructuring of the Chilean economy along state capitalist lines. Its broad outlines consist of nationalising the copper industry, the banks, the strategic industries and the monopolies in the distributive sector — or, as Popular Unity jargon has it, of nationalising “all the activities which conditions the economic and social development of the country”. Tied in with this, there is to be an “extension of agrarian reform”, measures “to assure monetary stability” and a “plan for social security: health, work, housing.”

All this has been expressed by Allende in popular slogans such as “A half litre of milk per day for each child” or “We want our people to eat, to have work, to have homes, to have the guarantee of health.” And it is small wonder that he has found a responsive audience (including, as he points out himself, the “enlightened capitalists”) when more than half of all children in Chile are recognised to be undernourished and hundreds of thousands live in tenements where one or even two families jammed in a single room is considered normal.

Yet not only does the united front programme not represent an advance towards Socialism as many Popular Unity supporters imagine, but the fact is that Allende’s policies will not even radically alter class relations within the existing capitalist society in Chile. Those who are pinning so much hope on nationalisation should remember that this will not be an entirely new phenomenon. Already the state in Chile controls the power industries (including oil), the steel industry, the railways and — in part — telecommunications. As for the banks, which the new government is in the process of nationalising completely, even under Frei sixty per cent, were controlled by the state. It is obviously relevant, then, to ask just what benefits previous experiments in nationalisation have brought to Chile’s working men and women — and why this new wave of takeovers by the state should produce any different results?

In a public announcement to mark the constitutional amendment which will allow the state to take over the copper industry, in December 1970, President Allende said: “Since 1930 the big companies which exploit the copper deposits have realised profits totalling $3,700m., which represent 40 per cent, of the total wealth of Chile . . . The nationalisation of copper will be worth $70m. a year to Chile.” The popular interpretation which is being put on statements like this is that these profits from the nationalised industries are to be directed towards building more houses for workers, pushing up wages and generally improving the quality of life of the masses of the people. But will capitalism allow such priorities to influence the running of Chile’s economy?

Since Allende is proud to announce that he has read his Marx, he must know that:

“…the development of capitalist production makes it constantly necessary to keep increasing the amount of capital laid out in a given industrial undertaking, and competition makes the imminent laws of capitalist production to be felt by each individual capitalist, as external coercive laws. It compels him to keep constantly extending his capital, in order to preserve it, but extend it he cannot except by means of progressive accumulation.”

Allende’s Chile, just like any other country operating within the world capitalist economy, will have to compete on the international markets to sell its products. The prices of its commodities can be made competitive only by Chile keeping abreast of world developments in industrial innovation, by constantly reinvesting in new plant — by constantly accumulating capital. And this can be done only by Chile’s industries — whether nationalised or not — pumping surplus value out of the working class. That these “external coercive laws” are continuing to operate was made quite clear in a radio speech by the new President when he announced that daily production of coal is to be stepped up from 3,800 tons to 4,700 tons — and then called on the miners to make sacrifices so that Chile’s coal can be sold at competitive prices on the world market.

Because the popular front government is responsible for Chile’s capitalist economy, inevitably it is being brought into conflict with the workers and peasants. Already there have been several strikes, some involving the occupation of factories, both in the capital Santiago and in the provinces. In December 1970 telephone workers in Santiago took over the central telephone building and held some hostages, calling for the immediate introduction of new salary scales which the government said it would introduce in time. In the same month three thousand municipal workers stopped work for 48 hours after demanding pay rises which the ‘Communist’ Minister of Finance refused, while fifteen thousand administrative workers were on strike too.

It could happen, as a result of events in Chile, that as the anti-working class policy of the Popular Unity government emerges more and more clearly, this could be blamed on its electoral strategy. There will, of course, be a number of confused people prepared to argue this way, suggesting that it was Allende’s reliance on the vote which prevented the building of Socialism in Chile, but socialists must explain that it was not the method of using the democratic machinery of elections which has proved inadequate. The capitalist system has persisted for the far more elementary reason that all of the movements in the popular front stand for capitalism and were voted into power by workers and peasants who are also still thinking along entirely capitalist lines.

Indeed, far from elections having been proved worthless, perhaps the only positive lesson for the working class to come out of Allende winning the Presidency is the way it showed how control of the state is all important.

Chile is politically the most advanced country on the South American continent, where there has been no coup d’état for almost forty years. The fact that workers there have achieved basic democratic rights which enable them to organise trade unions and vote freely is a measure of the level of political maturity reached. Once in power Allende found he could push through the reform programme of his government, even against considerable minority opposition, because the armed forces were always at his disposal. In the same way, when there is a socialist majority in Chile, the most ready means of advancing to Socialism will be for the workers there to use their votes to capture the state machine . In that way, they will be able to reorganise society on the basis of the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production, a very different thing from nationalisation. That will be the real socialist revolution — but, meanwhile, the good name of Marxism is being dragged through the dirt in Chile.

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