The coup against Allende and the neoliberal economics introduced by the Pinochet dictatorship teach us an enduring lesson: elites will always support a capitalist dictatorship over a socialist democracy.

Armed guards watch out for attackers as Chilean president Salvador Allende leaves the Moneda Presidential Palace during the military coup in which he was overthrown and killed. (Photo by Luis Orlando Lagos Vázquez/Keystone/Getty Images)

Sept 11, 1973. 50 years ago today.

The events that day in a ‘faraway country about which we knew little’ left an indelible mark on a generation of socialists who, like myself, were politically active in Britain.

They have stayed in my memory ever since. And they changed the way in which capitalism organised itself on a global scale.

Popular Unity (Unidad Popular), a left-wing political alliance led by Salvador Allende, came to power in November 1970. Chile’s natural resources, it was argued, should belong to all the people of Chile rather than to powerful and often foreign corporations.

Allende’s programme included the nationalisation of key industries, the expropriation of large land holdings and increased social spending on areas such as housing and health. 

Unsurprisingly, huge sums of money were spent by big corporations in an attempt to beat Popular Unity. They were supported, of course, by the Nixon Administration. But Allende nonetheless became president. 

In office, progress was made with the programme of nationalisations, such as copper mining. Allende’s government came under attack on multiple fronts. 

At that time, I got to know Ralph Miliband very well. He discussed Chile with me. He said that Allende faced six forms of struggle. Conservative Political parties did not accept the election as legitimate. There were also explicitly fascist-style groups embedded in parts of Chile. Civil society became a kind of battlefield, with acts of resistance to the government. I vividly recall the use of lorry drivers impeding the highways and damaging the economy. There were agencies and individuals within the state, including parts of the Judiciary, who resisted the Government.

Of course, as we know, the military played the role allocated to it by the Nixon Administration. It is painful, even now, to recall the bloodbath. And it is bone-chilling to look at the footage of troops heading to the President’s palace to kill Allende and singing a marching song — a Nazi marching song.

Britain did not defend Chilean democracy. Declassified documents show that British Tory Prime Minister Edward Heath strongly supported the coup behind the scenes. British officials were fully aware of the atrocities that were taking place but set about forging good relations with the military junta. The British Ambassador reported that British companies, such as Shell, were ‘all breathing deep sighs of relief’.

Within weeks, the foreign secretary, Alec Douglas Home, sent official ‘guidance’ to British embassies outlining support for the new junta: ‘For British interests… there is no doubt that Chile under the junta is a better prospect than Allende’s chaotic road to socialism’. Recent reports all show evidence that the British Foreign Office also assisted the Chilean junta regime’s intelligence services after the coup. 

After Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979, she forged a close relationship with Pinochet, arguably her favourite dictator whose hands were covered in the blood of many socialists, trades unionists, communists, radicals, artists, innocent citizens, and workers.

Why do we argue that the coup in Chile opened the door to a new phase of capitalism? For two reasons.

First, because the spectre of democratic socialism put fear into governments of South America. It was understood that if the Chilean experiment had succeeded, it would have acted as a model for others elsewhere to follow. Ultimately, the defeat of the Chilean road to socialism sent a terrifying message to all progressive forces and the wider working-class movement.

And second, because the country became a testing ground for extreme Monetarist and free-market policies. We have since come to call it neoliberalism, which penetrated most ‘advanced economies’ and remains entrenched to this day.

The so-called ‘Chicago boys’, a group of economists at the University of Chicago, including Milton Friedman, argued for economic shock policies that drove mass unemployment, impoverishing workers in the country. Much of the country’s remaining assets were sold off to big corporations.

The coup produced solidarity movements in Britain. Refugees fled Chile, and many came to the UK, including Leeds, where I was involved in solidarity work. They were amongst the finest comrades I ever met in a long life of activism. A mural was painted by the refugees in 1976 in Leeds University Students’ Union which said: ‘And there will be work for all.’  It remains to this day.

I am proud of the work we did in Leeds in solidarity all those years ago.

Perhaps the most famous act of solidarity with the Chilean people from the British labour movement was the action of four workers in the Rolls Royce factory in East Kilbride. As depicted in the great film Nae Pasaran, the workers who were members of the T&G union (now Unite) refused to mend Chilean airforce jet engines. Their boycott meant the jet engines lay unrepaired for years before they disappeared in the middle of the night and were secretly sent back to Chile. 

One further reflection is relevant. There was much talk in the British media in the weeks before the coup. The general view of the commentariat was that democracy was deeply rooted in Chile’s institutions. The state, it was argued, would respect the results of the election were Allende to win.

But this analysis was wrong. The Chilean state was organised to protect the interests of the big corporations and the wealthy. Their privileges were seen as being threatened.

Allende’s government proved to be popular with the majority of poor and working-class Chileans. Ralph Miliband commented: ‘When the Right (in Chile) came to fear that… the play of liberal institutions would result in the maintenance of Salvador Allende in power and in the development of socialism, it preferred violence to the law.’

Even to this day, Britain owes a debt to Chile for its support for the junta. Are there lessons for the Left in Britain? I think there are.  We need a careful discussion of the character of the British State.  It cannot be dismissed that there were dark hints from within the deep state and military that they might resist a socialist election victory should one come to pass.

The Telegraph in 2015 quoted a serving General in the British Army talking about the possibility of the election of a transformative Labour election victory as saying. ‘The army wouldn’t stand for it… people would use whatever means possible, fair or foul, to prevent that.’

Allende chose to die in the face of the junta, but not before he broadcast one last message to Chile, which can still be heard on the internet. It has been much listened to recently by young activists in Chile and elsewhere. His words speak to us still and have the power to move us:

To the Chilean working class, he reaffirmed his loyalty:

Workers of my country, I have faith in Chile and its destiny. Other men will overcome this dark and bitter moment when treason seeks to prevail. Go forward knowing that, sooner rather than later, the great avenues will open again where free men will walk to build a better society.’

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