Chile’s Attempt at Democratic Socialism Combined State Action and Bottom-Up Initiative

Chile’s socialist experiment was made possible by a confrontational working-class political party and a militant labor movement. The experience shows the promise, and the dangers, of a movement based in both government initiatives and grassroots militancy.

Various groups of miners taking part in the festivities marking the first anniversary of Salvador Allende's accession to the presidency, at the National Stadium in Santiago, Chile, November 4, 1971. (Bettmann Archive / Getty Images)

In the early 1970s, Chilean workers attempted something never done before: a democratic socialist revolution. Throughout the twentieth century, Chile was a deeply unequal society; it was also unique among the developing world because of its long-standing parliamentary tradition and a highly organized industrial working class and associated political parties.

After decades of struggle, the workers’ movement took power in a democratic election and, alongside grassroots efforts, initiated a transition toward socialism. Chile’s democratic socialist project was ultimately defeated by a capitalist-backed coup in 1973, but it has remained a powerful inspiration for democratic socialists around the world.

The past few years have seen a resurgence in democratic socialist politics in the United States. Socialists have won public office at all levels of government; young radicals are turning toward rebuilding the labor movement as rank-and-file organizers; many American workers are reviving and reforming their unions; and promising new organizing has sprouted at corporations like Amazon and Starbucks. Still, we’re a long way from socialism.

Without successful models of socialist revolution, those of us in capitalist countries with democratic institutions who want to see fundamental transformation must come up with a new road map. Chile’s attempt under Salvador Allende and the Popular Unity (UP) coalition remains one of the few models of a democratic socialist transition we have; both the UP’s victory, and its ultimate defeat, have important things to teach us.

Independent Political Action and Electoral Victory

Unlike other revolutionary socialist projects that took power throughout the twentieth century, Chile’s socialists made elections central to their plan for socialist transformation of society. And unlike the more electoral-oriented socialist parties of Europe, Chile’s socialists understood their task as breaking with capitalism. In his inaugural speech to parliament, Allende proclaimed that unlike the Bolsheviks’ “dictatorship of the proletariat” in Russia, “Chile is the first nation on earth to put into practice the second model of transition to a socialist society,” a democratic, “pluralistic” socialism.

Allende’s election was made possible by socialist political parties, firmly rooted in the industrial working class, that refused alliances with capitalists and remained committed to full democratization of the economy. The UP government’s 1970 election was the culmination of fifty years of working-class struggle. Chile’s first Marxist party, the Socialist Workers Party (POS), was founded in 1912, uniting the most radical wing of electoral politics with nascent labor struggles among nitrate miners. The POS renamed itself the Communist Party of Chile (PCCh) and joined the Comintern in 1922.

Ten years later, following the short-lived Socialist Republic of Chile led by Air Force commander Marmaduke Grove and his subsequent populist-infused socialist presidential campaign (garnering 17 percent of the vote), the Socialist Party (PS) was founded. The PS also identified as Marxist but was more heterogeneous than the Communists, distinguishing itself mainly by its refusal to toe the Soviet line on international politics or domestic strategy.

The Socialists and Communists eventually came together to present a united political opposition to the capitalists, setting the stage for Allende’s eventual rise. In the early ’50s, they unified a politically fractious labor movement under one central labor federation, the Central Única de Trabajadores de Chile (CUT), and then in 1956, alongside four smaller parties, formed an electoral coalition called the Popular Action Front (FRAP). FRAP fielded the Socialist Party’s Salvador Allende in 1958, nearly winning the presidency in a crowded race, and ran Allende again in 1964.

The Socialists and the Communists had different understandings of FRAP’s strategy. In the past, both the Socialists and Communists had participated in center-left coalition governments led by the middle-class Radical Party, but this strategy largely led to defeat. While the Communists retained the desire to broaden the FRAP coalition to include reform-oriented upper and middle classes and those they considered progressive capitalists less tied to US investment, by the mid-1950s, the Socialists had broken with their previous strategy of cross-class alliances.

Their experiences with such alliances had taught the Socialists that to break with foreign ownership of Chile’s natural resources and the country’s semifeudal agricultural system, the working class would have to lead the fight. The Radical-led governments the Socialists had participated in were incapable of carrying out these two tasks due, on the one hand, to their capitalist and middle-class leadership’s political and economic ties to foreign capital and Chile’s landed elite, and, on the other hand, the vacillation of the Communist Party between supporting the Nazi-Soviet pact and making alliances with national capitalists in the name of a “popular front” against fascism. Because of these moderating factors, the Radical-led governments could not carry out land reform, reneged on promises to support legalizing peasant unionization, regularly gave out ministries to the right-wing Liberal Party, and failed to promote state-led economic development, which would have required nationalizing certain sectors held by North American capitalists.

Around the same time, the Socialists began trying to use fights for reforms as a way of radicalizing workers, rather than as ends in themselves. A minimum program to address workers’ immediate needs and demands would be determined through direct conversation with different sections of the working class. By winning these minimum demands through independent organization going head to head with capitalists and the state rather than through backroom deals with the boss or parliamentary maneuvers, workers could build their fighting capacity and consciousness. If the party lost the fight, it would demonstrate how Chile’s capitalists and their politicians were fundamentally opposed to workers’ demands, and if the Left won the fight, it would build the confidence of workers in their own power.

As opposed to the earlier strategy of cross-class center-left coalitions, by uniting the working class behind its own independent banner in FRAP, the Left could more seriously present an alternative program for society in direct conflict with capitalist parties. But the Socialist insistence on building a movement to fight for the interests of the working class first and foremost, and the Communist tendency to subordinate workers’ interests for the sake of building alliances with other classes, created a tension within the left coalition.

For the 1970 presidential election, FRAP refashioned itself into Popular Unity, in some ways a concession to the Communist position. Unlike FRAP, UP included some small middle-class parties, but its mass working-class parties led the coalition, and it didn’t budge on its commitment to socialism through establishing a workers’ government.

Still, the UP adopted a “moderate” strategy for socialist transition — its first six years would be a carefully controlled government-led process, laying the groundwork and building a popular majority so that the next administration could complete the transition. In these first six years, UP planned to nationalize portions of the commanding heights of the economy, expand democratic institutions, oversee redistributive programs, and carry out land reform.

Capitalist Retaliation and Working-Class Advance

UP ultimately won the 1970 election in a three-way race with just under 37 percent of the vote in a grassroots campaign, led by local committees of workers and supporters from the various parties and movements backing Allende. The activists on the ground leading the UP campaign were involved in active struggles in their workplaces and communities, like campaigns for independent unions. While both the Socialists and Communists were electoral parties, they saw building and leading a powerful labor movement as one of their major tasks, and they were the parties most popular with Chile’s working class. Their combined votes within the CUT amounted to nearly 60 percent of CUT membership in 1972, with other UP and radical left parties making up another 10 percent. The UP’s base in shop-floor organization was crucial to its early success and its ability to beat back, for a time, right-wing attacks on the socialist experiment.

The Communists were the leading force in CUT, beating out the Socialists in membership among private sector workers in core industries. The Socialists advocated a more confrontational strategy, lamenting in the late ’50s that CUT overemphasized national unity and striking deals with capitalist politicians, which the Socialists thought dampened the unions’ ability to unite the working class around a strategy of class struggle. Despite moderation at times from the Communist leadership, these groups of organized workers would play a leading role in Chile’s attempted transition to socialism.

Socialists winning an election doesn’t mean that capitalists will peacefully and voluntarily give up their wealth and power, and they didn’t in Chile. Throughout Allende’s three years in power, Chile experienced capital flight, capital strikes, lockouts, shopkeeper hoarding, and middle- and professional-class strikes and slowdowns — all while facing a right-wing terrorist campaign, along with pressure from international capital and imperialist intervention. Many of these maneuvers were a rational response of capitalists and privileged sections of the middle class to UP’s socialist program. Rising wages alongside price controls, redistributive programs, and the threat of nationalization provoked capital flight, strikes, and hoarding, as capitalists could no longer guarantee future substantial profits nor, importantly, their control over the economy.

The UP government responded to capitalist sabotage by expanding the “social property area,” the government’s term for enterprises under state control. By bringing industries under public ownership and management, the government could operate firms at a lower rate of profit than capitalists would usually accept to maintain adequate levels of investment and production.

The State and the Shop Floor

In the face of capitalist resistance, a government choosing to socialize more of the economy is not a foregone conclusion; most socialist or social democratic leaders in other countries have feared heading toward an existential conflict with private property. It was mass action from below, rooted in the workplace — along with the initiative of radical state officials — that led Chile’s government to take this more revolutionary path. (The government of François Mitterrand in France, for instance, pursued the more common route of abandoning its socialist program in the face of capitalist resistance.)

Allende’s electoral campaign and victory inspired a new wave of grassroots action in the workplace and countryside, and that organizing in turn altered the course of government policy. In one dramatic example, workers at the Yarur textile mill kicked out their decades-old company union in favor of a militant independent union shortly after Allende took power. The shop-floor campaign was led by Socialist and Communist rank-and-file leaders, produced a newsletter with its demands for an independent union on one side and Popular Unity’s program on the other, and received support from local party organizations. The newly independent union struggled for control over the shop floor, forcing the removal of tyrannical managers and establishing shop-floor committees to oversee production to prevent capitalist sabotage.

Months later, Popular Unity won an astounding 50 percent in the April municipal elections, reflecting the success of Allende’s redistributive program in cultivating popular support. This victory inspired the Yarur workers to strike, demanding and winning the nationalization of their factory against Allende’s initial wishes. This kind of bottom-up activity spread throughout Chile, resulting in many factories and enterprises being taken into the social property area that weren’t on the UP’s original list of firms to be nationalized. Similar processes occurred in the countryside as radicals organized peasant unions and mass land seizures, taking advantage of preexisting land reform laws but also going beyond them.

The Ministry of the Economy collaborated with workers in organizing the social property area. Members of the ministry were in constant contact with workers on the shop floor, supporting them in developing the case and subsequent plan for nationalization. Their closer contact with the shop-floor movement, along with the economic need for socialization, made members of the ministry more inclined to support these bottom-up initiatives and to transform government policy in lockstep with developments on the ground.

As elite resistance intensified in October 1972 with a trucker owner-operator strike, lockouts, and shopkeeper hoarding, Chilean workers built new grassroots institutions they termed “Popular Power” to defend the revolution and maintain a functioning economy. Workers reopened factories they were locked out of, and coordinated producing and distributing goods as well as defending against right-wing violence and sabotage. In cities, they formed volunteer committees to requisition and distribute hoarded goods. And within the growing social property sector, workers pioneered new democratic structures of participation and management alongside the government.

But tensions were growing within the Left. The Communist Party approached Popular Power with skepticism and was at times antagonistic toward more radical developments in the countryside. In the party’s eyes, the bottom-up activity was jumping the gun on socialist revolution, would prematurely provoke capitalist counterreaction, and threatened the union structures that the party dominated. The strength of this perspective within UP was reinforced by the fact that the legislature and the judiciary remained under the control of capitalist forces who used their legal powers to obstruct Allende’s agenda and force a constitutional crisis. Meanwhile the left-wing of the Socialist Party and other smaller parties within and outside of UP embraced Popular Power and advocated that Allende more forcefully embrace the structures as central organs for carrying out the workers’ revolution and fighting capitalist reaction.

Despite left-wing pleas, Allende adopted a strategy similar to that advocated by the Communists, attempting reconciliation with capitalists to end the employer offensive of 1972. He agreed to integrate the military into his cabinet, and effectively demobilized government support for Popular Power, notwithstanding its continued growth after the October strikes. Despite further conciliatory efforts by UP, the Right remained committed to ending Allende’s government at all costs, eventually staging a coup in September 1973 that killed the three-year experiment at a democratic transition to socialism.

The Road to Power

A democratic socialist transition is far from the agenda in the United States. And, of course, the two countries’ political and social contexts are vastly different — not to mention that more than half a century has passed since Allende first took office. Nonetheless, Chile’s experience carries important lessons and raises vital questions for American leftists.

A democratic socialist transformation of society will likely have to pass through the conquest of power by the working class through its party or parties in a democratic election. But a workers’ party of the sort cannot solely be a vehicle for winning elections or passing legislation.

Chile’s Socialist and Communist parties were real, mass working-class movements, embedded in the workplace and shop-floor struggles and oriented toward the conquest of political power by the working class and the reorganization of the economy along the lines of social and democratic ownership and control. They operated independently of and in direct conflict with capitalists, and to the extent that they incorporated middle-class parties into their coalition, it was on the basis of the middle-class groups accepting a working-class program for socialism. This is in contrast to left-wing parties that moderate their demands to attract the middle class, as many social democratic parties have done in the past fifty years.

Abandoning their previous strategies of class collaboration and instead orienting toward building an independent working-class electoral formation in FRAP allowed the Left to consolidate a unified working-class movement behind a socialist program. In doing so, the Left successfully polarized society around the politics of class. As conservative and reform governments were unable to address Chile’s rampant inequality, inflation, unsustainable economic development, and imperialist domination, this independent force was able to put itself — and its program — forward as a compelling alternative.

Actions inside and outside the state reinforced one another, with victories in the electoral sphere both building upon and further inspiring grassroots action. Grassroots activity in turn set into motion revolutionary processes that state managers couldn’t control, although some encouraged and collaborated with them. The electoral and grassroots wings also came into conflict as a real contradiction emerged: the base’s growing expectations propelled the movement into a struggle that the leadership feared it couldn’t win.

Attempting to moderate the base rather than encouraging bottom-up initiative may have stunted the movement from developing the capacity necessary to defeat or stave off a coup. Allende was right to want to avoid civil war, but it remains an open question of how to avoid civil war while retaining a commitment to deepening and expanding the revolution being carried out by the grassroots movement. Marxist theorist Ralph Miliband, in his classic essay “The Coup in Chile,” argued that only through wholeheartedly preparing for such a war, giving real institutional teeth and strategic leadership to organs of popular power, can socialists prevent one.

These questions may rear their head again if we’re ever so lucky to get as far as socialists in Chile did. But we’re still missing the central ingredients necessary to get there. In the United States today, there is no party or serious pre-party group representing an independent working-class political program and bottom-up struggle. Nor do we have a large, militant labor movement in which to root such a party. If we’re looking for an on-ramp onto the long democratic road to socialism, building those movements and institutions is a good place to start.