Commemorating Chile’s Unidad Popular

by By Alejandro Reuss | September 11, 2013

Today, many Chileans—and many sympathizers from around the world—will commemorate and mourn the 40th anniversary of the 1973 military coup. The coup ended the three years of the Unidad Popular (the socialist-led “Popular Unity” government, or UP) and forty years of civilian rule and electoral democracy in Chile. The day of the coup ended with La Moneda, the presidential palace, a burned and bullet-riddled ruin, and with the country’s freely elected socialist president, Salvador Allende, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The military dictatorship that came to power on Sept. 11, 1973, would become notorious worldwide for the kidnapping, rape, torture, and murder of political opponents. Its apologists would, meanwhile, turn a blind eye to its atrocities, and laud the results of its neoliberal economic policies as an “economic miracle.”

It has certainly been important and necessary to dredge up this painful history. The military dictatorship, as Patricia Constable and Arturo Valenzuela put it in their 1991 book A Nation of Enemies: Chile Under Pinochet, had “made spies of the unscrupulous, sycophants of the ambitious, and conformists of the majority.” The experience of dictatorship left many traumatized by violence, many more cowed into submission—not only by the fear that they themselves might be tortured or “disappeared” if they spoke up, but by the idea that dreaming of a new society was a form of hubris, which would only lead to disaster. Despite eruptions of protest during the period of the dictatorship, especially in the early and mid 1980s, Chileans have really only gradually overcome this trauma and regained the ability to protest without triggering fears of another coup. Confronting this history, breaking the silence about the past, naming the guilty parties, demanding justice—all played a role in making protest possible again.

There are other things, however, to commemorate about Chile in the early 1970s, most especially the promise of a democratic socialism that was truly democratic and truly socialist—something different from both the reformed capitalism of western European social democracy and the bureaucratic dictatorships of the Soviet bloc. The UP in Chile, the May 1968 protests in Paris, and the Prague Spring of 1968 all, in their way, rekindled hope for a new brand of humanistic and liberatory socialism. In remembering the demise of the UP (not just the government, but that era of Chilean history), we ought not to forget its positive legacies.


The economic program of the UP government—a coalition primarily of Chile’s Socialist and Communist parties—included three principal ingredients:

  1. The socialization of key industries, including a complete socialization of the country’s principal export industry, copper, which had been partly socialized under the preceding Christian Democratic administration, the nationalization of the country’s banking system, and the nationalization of the largest industrial companies (the so-called “monopolies”).
  2. A dramatic redistribution of income, and especially a massive commitment to improving the lot of the poor. To some extent, this was accomplished by direct government provision—as of a daily milk ration to all families with small children. In addition, increases in the minimum wage and the wages of government employees raised the incomes of large numbers of workers. More broadly, however, the government’s open sympathy with workers’ struggles tilted the balance of power between workers and employers. Historian Peter Winn writes that, in 1971, the average increase in real wages was 30%, and fully 10% of Chile’s income was redistributed from capital to labor (Winn, Weavers of Revolution: The Yarur Workers and Chile’s Road to Socialism).
  3. A dramatic redistribution of control over the means of production. The UP was determined to really bring to fruition earlier partial, halting agrarian reforms. The government accelerated the pace of land expropriations from the country’s landlord class (or latifundistas) and of land redistribution, as individual plots or, in some cases, cooperative farms. Moreover, the government’s refusal to respond punitively to peasant land occupations took the lid off the pressure cooker of rural unrest. Poor peasants did not wait for the legal land reform to come through. They took it into their own hands.

Something similar happened in urban areas. Industrial workers began to engage in factory occupations. A longstanding law allowed the government to “intervene” (appoint a receiver) over companies where production was shut down by industrial strife. Intended as a strikebreaking measure, the law was instead used by the UP to establish de facto joint government and worker control over much of Chilean industry. Under these conditions, many owners accepted government buyouts “voluntarily” (fearing that otherwise the government could run the intervened enterprise into the ground). Undoubtedly, it also gave employers a strong incentive to avoid strikes and factory occupations by giving in to workers’ demands.

There were two sides to the period of the UP. The better known was the radical reform from above, launched by the government, whose trajectory was supposed to be toward some brand of “socialism.” (It is not possible to know where it might have ended up—whether in some kind of social democratic reformed capitalism, a “mixed economy,” or a fundamentally new economic system.) The lesser known, even among international sympathizers with the UP, was the eruption of a revolution from below. (The very real tensions between these two dynamics are outside the scope of this blog post.) In addition to the land takings and factory occupations, Chile’s peasants, industrial workers, and urban poor created new forms of popular organization collectively know as the poder popular—the people’s power. Workers formed cordones industriales (councils bringing together workers at multiple factories). Poor and working-class urban residents created comandos comunales (similar councils at the neighborhood level). Juntas de abastecimiento y precios (supply and price committees), in which women were especially active, fought hoarding and price gouging.

This was one of the great flourishings of mass participatory democracy in modern times. It should be remembered like the Paris Commune of 1871 or the Petrograd Soviets of 1905 and 1917. These are all examples of democracy in the truest sense—where the people (“demos”) themselves take control of their own lives. We can’t remember the Commune and only think of the dead communards. By the same token, we mustn’t think of the UP or the poder popular in Chile and think only of the soccer stadiums or the unmarked graves.

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One Comment

  1. Well said Alejandro!

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