The great achievements of Salvador Allende’s socialist government in Chile have often been overshadowed by its brutal defeat. But the fall of his government wasn’t inevitable.

Salvador Allende arriving at a schoolhouse with his wife, Hortensia, surrounded by a crowd. September 4, 1970, in Santiago, Chile. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

Fifty years ago, Chile’s road to socialism suffered a devastating defeat. On September 11, 1973, the Chilean military, spurred by elites, condoned by middle-class sectors, and backed by Washington, toppled Salvador Allende’s Unidad Popular (Popular Unity, or UP), a vibrant though strained coalition government helmed by the Communist (CP) and Socialist (SP) parties.

The coup, which progressives have been commemorating the world over, smashed workers’ organizations, popular movements, and democratic institutions, murdering thousands and sending orders of magnitude more to torture centers, concentration camps, and internal and international exile. In ushering in a seventeen-year dictatorship and laying the groundwork for thirty years of postauthoritarian free-market supremacy in Chile, it also seemed to eliminate one the most promising experiments in democratic socialism from working-class and radical strategic arsenals.

To our great disadvantage, radicals seem convinced that the UP’s road to socialism — the extraordinarily complex endeavor to build an “institutional apparatus for a new form of pluralistic, free socialist order,” as Allende put it — was doomed from the beginning. Over the decades, our political vision remains mired in the polarized assessments first offered in the heat of Allende’s coalition’s tumultuous years in power.

Either the UP moderated its aims and accommodated elites in order to survive, or it abandoned all compromise and sharpened the class struggle to accelerate decisive confrontation. Both options portended failure: slowing the process of change in pursuit of conciliation was capitulation; speeding it up toward a final showdown was suicide.

After half a century, we must move beyond this dichotomized, and paralyzing, analysis of the UP’s alleged impasse. It points radicals in the wrong direction by overlooking the real potential to build and expand a popular majority that might have both preempted the coup and bought Allende time to find more sustainable ways to advance the UP’s transformative program. With the Left in government again, this year’s commemorations enjoin us to take full stock of the Chilean road to socialism.

Washington’s Role

No remembrance of the Allende years is complete without an explanation of the toppling of his government. In answering what produced the coup, it helps to rule out what did not cause it. Two flawed explanations that remain dominant: first, observers point to American imperialism; second, critics attribute the UP’s fall to the weakness of its leaders, Allende in particular.

Our political vision remains mired in the polarized assessments first offered in the heat of Allende’s coalition’s tumultuous years in power.

Against the received wisdom among the global left, the coup was not the consequence of US intervention and CIA machinations. This is not to deny Washington’s direct involvement, but simply to state that American meddling was not the driving force and central factor behind the UP’s toppling. Washington did promote the coup and participate in its orchestration. However, US intervention only contributed to Allende’s removal once primary domestic factors created the indispensable context for imperialist aims.

In fact, the United States had intervened repeatedly to keep Allende from power, but it had typically failed in accomplishing its aims. US efforts to thwart socialist victory in Chile began even before the 1970 campaign. After Allende’s coalition came within three points of winning the 1958 vote, Washington generously financed Christian Democrat (CD) Eduardo Frei in the following presidential elections. The CIA funneled $2.6 million into Frei’s victorious 1964 campaign, covering over half of its costs.

Six years later, one more facing a formidable run by Allende, Washington allocated nearly half a million dollars to fund anti-UP propaganda. When Allende was elected on September 4 despite these measures, the Nixon administration approved another ten million, or “more if necessary,” to prevent the socialist politician’s inauguration and “save Chile” by taking steps to “make the economy scream.” Yet in spite of its generous — and undeniably illegal and reprehensible — meddling, the United States failed to block a socialist ascent to power in Chile.

Many point to the CIA’s record of funneling millions of dollars into Frei’s winning 1964 campaign as evidence of long-standing and decisive American influence over domestic Chilean affairs. But illegal CIA funding of Allende’s rival, which did add useful resources for his victory, only supports the argument against singling US intervention as the overriding factor behind the defeat of Chile’s road to socialism. Although CIA financing helped Frei win by 56 to 39 percent, the CDs were in a position to handily top Allende because Frei ran with the unified support of traditional business elites, as well as modernizing industrialists and middle layers.

The Limits of Intervention

Washington’s inability to prevent Allende’s victory and inauguration in 1970 underscores the limits to imperialist designs. In his fourth run, and the third one heading a solidified Communist-Socialist alliance, Allende snuck by with a plurality of 37 percent of votes. Yet even with a shaky UP victory, one presumably susceptible to CIA plots, US efforts to keep Allende from assuming the presidency failed.

In spite of its generous — and undeniably illegal and reprehensible — meddling, the United States failed to block a socialist ascent to power in Chile.

American intelligence services conspired in vain with Chilean business elites, reactionary Chilean intelligence officials, and outgoing president Frei to sabotage the inauguration. One hastily hatched plan to generate turmoil by kidnapping the constitutionalist commander of the military backfired when General René Schneider was killed in the clumsily executed operation.

Washington’s next attempt to dictate the outcome fell apart when it failed to persuade the UP’s parliamentary opponents to vote against Allende’s confirmation. Its scheme with Frei involved pressuring the former president’s coreligionists to produce a constitutional crisis that could then be resolved by calling for snap elections once Allende was rejected. But the Christian Democrat left wing, behind its progressive candidate, Radomiro Tomic, withstood Washington’s heavy-handedness, again underscoring the fallacy of imperialist omnipotence.

In the end, of course, US intervention did contribute to the fall of Chile’s socialist government. But outside meddling did not cause its demise. Ruthless diplomacy, an intensifying embargo, funding for a truckers’ shutdown, and support for fascistic street terror all weakened Allende’s authority and, more importantly, the UP’s ability to sustain material improvements for its social base. But this tightening chokehold, while undeniably impactful, did not accomplish its aim until decisive domestic circumstances yielded fertile ground for it.

As elaborated below, Chilean class forces aligned to place the UP in check and facilitate a pro-coup balance of power. Without a domestic coalition that called for military action, American intervention remained insufficiently potent to topple Allende.

This assessment in no way downplays, and much less excuses, harmful US meddling. But it has key implications worth noting. Firstly, it should fortify radicals against the paralyzing belief in imperialism’s all-powerful and omnipresent reach. Secondly, and relatedly, it shows that, barring outright invasion, domestic class politics, when effectively wielded by the Left, can inoculate against foreign meddling.

Expanding Social Property

The other prominent explanation for the UP’s failure, one rehearsed by radicals in particular, pivots from external threats to look for fatal flaws inside Chile’s road to socialism. This view holds that Allende determined his own fate by handicapping his radical program and supporters.

Just as during the UP years, when Chile’s Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR) and far-left Socialists relentlessly berated the government (and particularly Communist officials who largely shared the president’s strategic approach), this line of argument is typically professed by ultraleft forces. But even measured and sympathetic contemporary analysts promoted the thesis that conciliatory constitutionalism was a certain “path to disaster.” Ralph Miliband argued that Allende’s conciliation, in weakening the working class and emboldening his opponents, contained “all the elements of self-fulfilling catastrophe.”

It seems curious to reproach Allende for his supposed unwillingness to advance a radical economic transformation.

Arguments in this vein insist that the commitment of Allende and his allies to bourgeois institutions defanged Chile’s revolutionary thrust and left it hopelessly exposed to the treachery of domestic enemies. While its strands tend to get muddled, they can be classified into two accounts. The first focuses on the UP’s restraint in its economic program; the second alludes to Allende’s extreme caution around promoting a confrontation between the rising militancy of his working-class base and elite opposition.

It seems curious to reproach Allende for his supposed unwillingness to advance a radical economic transformation. The armchair sectarian argument claims that the UP left itself vulnerable to a capital strike by its class enemies by not nationalizing more productive assets that were in private hands. In other words, Allende’s compliance with private property rules facilitated business withholding of investment — a classic extortionist ploy that tanked the economy. Yet this narrative hardly fits the UP’s actual record.

In addition to nationalizing the copper industry, Allende accelerated the land reform process, all but eliminating the landed class, and vigorously pursued the expropriation not just of the economy’s “commanding heights,” but of most large-scale manufacturing. In fact, by 1973, over half of total national output was accounted for by the public sector, including banking, mining, foreign trade, basic industry, and even important light manufacturing sectors like textiles and key foodstuffs.

Firms and industries transferred to the ever-expanding Área de Propiedad Social (Social Property Realm) included those whose takeover had been announced in Allende’s platform as well as unplanned ones resulting from escalating labor-management disputes. During his first year in office, all but two of the seventy planned nationalizations — comprising firms deemed monopolistic and strategic — had been accomplished.

In 1972, the government decreed another 113 expropriations; the following year, Allende seized 219 more before the UP’s toppling. By some estimates, up to 80 percent of Chilean manufacturing was nationalized. Rather than leaving the Chilean road to socialism exposed, the UP systematically disarmed the ruling class of its economic leverage over the state and society. This was hardly a submissive attitude toward the business class.

Mobilizing Workers

When not denouncing Allende for his obliviousness to the sabotaging power of the investment function, many insist on blaming the UP’s defeat on his naive reluctance to unleash working-class insurgency against the ruling class and institutions. Invoking the undeniable from-below militancy that often drove the aforementioned nationalizations, radicals confidently declare that the UP should have harnessed workers’ ferment, directing it to preemptively conquer remaining business property and supplant the state’s governing bodies.

This assessment largely follows the MIR’s sloganeering of the early 1970s. Along with the left wing of his own party, the MIR activists reproached Allende’s legalist timidity and called for “combating this reformism, challenging and overtaking the authority of that government and the program of the UP” (emphasis added). Their call was to “avanzar sin transar,” or push forward with no compromises.

Spurning caution, Allende’s task, we are told, was to instigate, rather than restrict, grassroots mobilization, shifting it onto the offensive against the bases of elite rule. While expanding land and factory occupations would remove their economic foundations, alternative forms of popular power — from “soviet-style” cordones industriales that attempted to coordinate workers’ management of production and supplies to insurgent local governing bodies like the commandos comunales — would mature from their embryonic form to sweep over “bourgeois” state bureaucracies.

Considering the inescapable backlash by elites, the UP’s only hope was to get ahead of the impending coup and ride the wave of surging militance and deploy it for the definitive showdown. In Miliband’s verdict, the UP had to “encourage the building of a network of organs of power, parallel to and complementing the state power, and constituting a solid infrastructure for the timely ‘mobilization of the masses.’”

The overarching objective by 1972–73 was to substantially advance, not complete, the process of radical reform.

To prepare for the looming showdown, as leader of Chile’s road to revolution, Allende’s historic responsibility was to arm peasants, workers, students, and shantytown militants. Instead, he displayed a foolhardy allegiance to republican rules of the game. Unwilling to meet the moment and drive it toward decisive class confrontation, Allende disarmed workers, rendering them defenseless against looming civil war.

Once more, the self-assuredness of this assessment is dubious. The overarching objective by 1972–73 was to substantially advance, not complete, the process of radical reform. After all, Allende and his supporters never envisioned an immediate transition to socialism within his presidency’s short timeframe. Instead, with overwhelming support from the workers and the poor, the aim was to end “domination by the imperialists [transnationals], the monopolies, and the landed oligarchy in order to initiate the construction of socialism in Chile” (emphasis added).

The key was to accomplish critical transformative and redistributive reforms that would better position working people and the labor movement to carry out more comprehensive anti-capitalist restructuring. Allende, his CP allies, and the vast majority of workers subscribed to this strategic plan.

Rising popular power organs were key instruments that workers built to confront measures deployed by elites against the progress of the Chilean road. Yet they were erected atop capacities that generations of workers, poor people, and their parties had painstakingly struggled to develop. As the campaign for socialism was to be fought over the long haul, Allende and popular militants understood the need to preserve and nurture these capacities.

Faced with the prospects of an unwinnable civil war, Allende was compelled to avert a useless bloodbath. His unwillingness to risk their destruction in a premature and hopeless final battle reflected a commitment to promoting workers’ interests in a manner rooted in the preferences and activity of the class. This efficacious adherence to workers’ needs and empowerment is what made the Chilean road to socialism so threatening.

Domestic Alignments

If neither US meddling nor Allende’s reluctance to break with bourgeois institutions can explain the coup, what caused the defeat of the Chilean road to socialism? Rather than outside intervention or a deficient line by its leaders, it was intractable — though not inexorable — domestic realignments that led to the violent toppling of Chile’s radical democratic experiment.

Understanding why the Chilean road to socialism was defeated requires a brief explanation of how the UP found an opening to power in the first place.

Bluntly, and tragically, the ruling class outmaneuvered the UP. Elites succeeded in uniting with middle sectors and state modernizers to create a pro-coup alliance that the working class and its party leaders failed to counter. When its commitment to ending their domination crystalized as the UP’s defining feature, business elites, now shielded by the backing of middle and managerial layers, organized the military’s intervention.

Understanding why the Chilean road to socialism was defeated requires a brief explanation of how the UP found an opening to power in the first place. As mentioned above, national political factors shaped the Chilean road’s fate. Just as US intervention proved ineffectual until domestic disputes created the environment for it to be influential, shifting class configurations provided an opening for Allende’s triumph. Divisions among elite and governing forces resulted in UP opponents competing against one another in the 1970 elections, handing the socialist coalition victory with a plurality of votes.

Ruling elites had adopted the opposite approach in the previous elections. In 1964, landowning and industrial oligarchs chose not to field a candidate, even though they had triumphed six years prior. In 1958, conservative Jorge Alessandri had himself won with a plurality, largely because centrist forces were in flux. Before successfully regrouping, they divided proreform votes between a declining Radical Party, which had headed the Popular Front government of the late 1930s and 1940s, and the rising CDs, who proposed a new agenda of modernization with social justice.

Although the fragmented electorate gave way to a right-wing government, it also allowed the socialist coalition to come dangerously close. Allende, running on the Frente de Acción Popular (FRAP) ticket, had reached 28 percent of votes, up from just 5.5 percent in 1952, and merely 2.5 points shy of Alessandri’s winning tally. Business learned a valuable lesson: if anti-socialist forces did not band together, surging workers’ movements might place their parties in power.

From Consensus to Division

Under Alessandri, the economy stagnated. Along with slow growth and low profits, working-class wages eroded, labor militance rose, and the Left’s influence grew further. With the FRAP looming as potential victors in the 1964 elections, key sections of the industrial elite aligned behind the middle-class professionals and developmentalists who championed Frei’s CD candidacy.

Predictably, the pro-Allende vote swelled to almost 40 percent. But as elites and modernizing professionals voted in unison, Frei won in a landslide with 56 percent of votes. The key to protecting Chile’s emerging market economy was to remain unfractured.

The disappointment and incoherence of Frei’s term nonetheless dissolved proestablishment cohesiveness. The CDs had pledged to boost growth and productivity through renewed industrialization policies and a thorough transformation of Chile’s backward agrarian sector. Economic transformation would be accompanied by expanded organization and incorporation of marginalized popular sectors in the countryside and rapidly proliferating urban callampas, or shanties.

Instead of forging a cross-class national consensus, Eduardo Frei’s reforms exacerbated class conflict.

However, instead of forging a cross-class national consensus, Frei’s reforms exacerbated class conflict. His “revolution in freedom” program, and the social tensions it intensified, went too far for business while proving insufficient for the Left, including a radicalizing sector in his own party. His ambitious land reform and an increasingly uncontainable industrial and popular insurgency embittered the Right. But Frei’s restraint in restructuring property and labor relations, and his use of repression against protest, alienated critics and rebels within Christian Democracy.

As a result, with Allende’s coalition seeking to capitalize on rising discontent and mobilization, traditional economic elites committed to restoring a conservative model of market development, while a growing Christian Democrat left proposed anti-capitalist reforms to solve the country’s unequal and erratic growth regime. Although the CD radicals who gained the upper hand flirted with a broad Christian and Marxist “popular unity” that would run a single socialist candidate, when campaigning for the 1970 election got underway, three major blocs competed for power.

In short, as intensified challenges of capitalist development pulled elites and modernizing managers apart, an opportunity opened for the Chilean road to socialism. With 36.6 percent, Allende’s coalition beat out the CDs (28 percent of votes) and Alessandri’s reactionary gambit (35.3 percent). Although his advantage was slimmer than the 1958 margin of victory, elite divisions gave Allende a tenuous victory.

Popular Unity in Power

Allende’s government, particularly during its first two years, was an object lesson in transferring power from the country’s class rulers to organized workers and public management. Before a downturn set in, UP policies facilitated rapid economic expansion and massive improvements for toiling sectors.

Allende’s government was an object lesson in transferring power from the country’s class rulers to organized workers and public management.

As the material well-being of workers and the poor improved, their organization and influence also expanded, affording them enhanced leverage over employers and the wealthy. The mutually-enhancing advances — in well-being and power — generated a short-lived virtuous cycle that translated into growing electoral support for the UP and increasing desperation from elites.

The cornerstone for the economic transformations and growth proposed by the UP was the nationalization of the copper industry, the leading sector that Allende referred to as the country’s “wage.” Control of mining and exports would underwrite the UP’s redistributive campaigns as well as its program to accelerate and upgrade Chile’s industrialization.

Overarching frustration with the “Chileanization” copper scheme of Allende’s predecessor Frei and with the general stagnation resulting from his failed economic modernization strategies allowed the UP to quickly push through nationalization with unanimous parliamentary backing. The policy resonated with such a broad array of social layers that even the Right did not dare oppose it.

Public control of copper had an immediate impact. Despite an array of difficulties, Chile boosted national production during Allende’s first year. Even after mineral transnationals conspired to sink global prices by 25 percent, the UP earned nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars — the equivalent of over $5.5 billion today — in copper exports. All told, the economy experienced an unprecedented yearly growth rate of nearly ten percent. Taking back the “people’s wage” dynamized the economy.

Investment proceeded apace, reaching 20 percent of GDP, a figure even the probusiness military government never matched. Given the commanding role of the state in Chile’s industry, more than half of capital formation was fueled by public investment. Impressively, when copper exports fell, cutting into the national “wage,” productivity rose, particularly in key intermediate goods where it expanded by nearly a quarter from 1970 to 1971.

Even as the international blockade and the domestic truckers’ strike brought output to a halt in 1972, and public investment inevitably plummeted, productivity held in durable and capital goods and kept expanding in intermediate sectors as the UP continued to tap into the country’s idle industrial capacity. As a consequence, even when growth stalled during his tumultuous second year in office, Allende succeeded in advancing structural transformations and meeting the UP’s redistributive mandate.

Working-Class Gains

Chilean workers experienced the largest wage increases ever during the UP’s first two years. In 1971, real average wages grew by 22 percent. While Allende increased overall minimums by one-eighth, industrial and agricultural wage floors fared the best, rising by nearly two-fifths. The average hike in manufacturing wages that first year was 25 percent.

Even when growth stalled during his tumultuous second year in office, Allende succeeded in advancing structural transformations and meeting the UP’s redistributive mandate.

While mean wages reflected mandated increases, they also resulted from historic unemployment lows. The expansion driven by the UP’s control of the economy brought 1971 joblessness down to 3.8 percent; it fell another 3.1 percent the following year. Indeed, even as productivity declined beginning in 1972, national output was able to expand as the social property area absorbed increasing numbers of workers.

Chile’s near full employment under Allende gave workers the market leverage to command higher real wages and defend them through 1972. Meanwhile, social provision expanded for Chilean workers and the poor. After its first full year in power, the UP had elevated public spending on social security to 12 percent of GDP — a jump of nearly two-fifths.

All told, achievements for workers were unprecedented. By the end of 1972, labor’s share of national income surpassed 50 percent, expanding by a third in just two years! Blue-collar laborers benefited the most as their portion grew from slightly above one-fifth to one-third of all income.

Losing ground in terms of property and income was not the only change that terrified the ruling class. Despite criticisms of Allende’s alleged restraint, the UP did more than favor the working class materially — it also gave them power. The socialist government’s empowerment of workers and the poor went beyond conferring economic protection that freed them to make demands and mobilize collection action.

As critical as such security was, the UP also institutionalized their rising organization into systemic influence. Workers’ newfound leverage came in the form of recognized popular organizations that the UP incorporated, not without tension, into democratic decision-making processes, both in the economy and in government. Invigorated power resources of the poor comprised unions, neighborhood associations, and workers’ and peasant councils — all of which played central roles in driving and carrying out the UP democratic socialist policies.

Unions were the backbone of soaring workers’ power. Although unionization had steadily grown under Chile’s midcentury developmentalism and cohered increasingly following the 1953 founding of the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores de Chile (CUT) national labor federation, worker organization and mobilization reached new levels of intensity after Allende’s election.

When the government was toppled, union density stood at an all-time high of around 42 percent, representing an expansion of 7 points over the already high 1970 level and a mark not seen since. Unionization was highest in core strategic industries, with density around 60, 65, 55, 35, and 100 percent in agriculture, mining, manufacturing, transport, and banking, respectively.

Popular Power

Laboring Chileans did not limit their organization to unions. In workplaces as well as the countryside and neighborhoods, ordinary people formed assemblies, councils, and committees to take over management of local affairs.

Plants slated for expropriation or ones that were occupied by workers demanding public takeover saw the formation of councils in which labor representatives participated in managing the nationalized property. Balancing the role of workers as managers of industry with the duty of unions to represent their interests generated considerable friction.

In workplaces as well as the countryside and neighborhoods, ordinary people formed assemblies, councils, and committees to take over management of local affairs.

Shanty dwellers organized commandos to coordinate their actions, many of which became local associations. At a crucial juncture, neighborhood groups coordinated with the government to create “supply and price boards” (Juntas de Abastecimiento y Control de Precios) to overcome the havoc in distribution caused by the truckers’ shutdown and to combat hoarding and speculation stoking the black market.

We can debate, as certain currents on the Left never tire of doing, whether these institutions of popular organization simply became transmission belts of a reformist government unwilling to break with the bourgeois state. But this by now trite quarrel misses their standout feature.

Incontrovertibly, thriving workers’ institutions augmented the wherewithal of workers to advance their interests and gave Chilean socialism a potent tool to wield against elite intransigence. The UP, during its truncated time in office, fomented ordinary people’s organizations, supporting a process of transferring power from ruling to formerly dominated classes.

Ordinary Chileans took hold of these structures, agitating to improve their livelihoods and to assert their influence over national affairs. In fact, even prior to Allende’s election, rising popular organization put all candidates on notice. The CUT carried out a general strike in the year prior, and peasants and workers multiplied estate and plant seizures. While workers and the poor coordinated their collective action to support the UP’s policy goals, they did not subordinate their rising insurgency to Allende’s dictates.

Far from demobilizing after the UP triumph, workers went on the offensive. The strike wave that hit Frei’s final years in office continued relentlessly. From the 1,819 stoppages during the last year of the CD presidency, strikes increased to 2,709 in 1971 and again to 3,289 in 1972. Extending and activating militancy across sectors and economic spheres, they mobilized growing associational capacities to impress their grievances on partisan officials and state managers.

The clearest, though far from the only, manifestation of rising assertiveness was the avalanche that took hold of industry. The UP had electrified Chilean workers, and their enhanced power radiated to all economic sectors and social spheres.

Rules of the Game

Allende’s adherence to “bourgeois rules of the game” did not bring about the UP’s “self-fulfilling” defeat. The opposite is closer to the truth. Rather than conciliatory weakness, rising working-class influence and the danger it posed to elite domination propelled the authoritarian forces that promoted and carried out the coup.

Threatened from the start, top business and military officials began planning a coup the instant that Allende won the 1970 elections.

Threatened from the start, top business and military officials began planning a coup the instant that Allende won the 1970 elections. But it was not until the dread of losing their ruling status engulfed the entire business class, and fear of instability and recklessness prevailed among middle sectors and significant layers of the working class, that elites could put their schemes into effect.

Intensifying after mid-1972, the UP had forestalled these machinations, not through legalist timidity or concessionary tradeoffs, but owing to a calibrated strategy amid rising worker power. The delicate balance entailed fostering transformative capacity on the one hand while impairing the opposition’s ability to destroy these capacities on the other. As Allende laid out in his first speech before Congress:

If we should forget that our mission is to establish a [society designed for the service of man], the whole struggle of our people for socialism will become simply one more reformist experiment. If we should forget the concrete conditions from which we start in order to try and create immediately something which surpasses our possibilities, then we shall also fail.

“Surpassing” what was feasible and insisting on socialist rupture would backfire by instigating a pro-coup alignment. Yet this in no way meant confining oneself to existing limits. The ongoing development of workers’ power, lest it be wasted on “one more reformist experiment,” was intended precisely to augment, while protecting, prospects for ongoing transformations.

Success depended not only on outflanking CIA schemes, but on increasing support for Allende while simultaneously ensuring the ruling class and bureaucratic modernizers did not restore an anti-socialist unity. Through the tumultuous employers’ offensive of mid-to-late 1972 and until March 1973, the UP’s steady hand managed to preempt the cohesion of an authoritarian coalition while simultaneously bolstering reforms and workers’ capacities.

The Chilean road to socialism failed when the rise of laboring sectors was unable to thwart the pro-coup alignment. Concretely, the UP was toppled after its elite opponents overcame their divisions and reunited following the March 1973 parliamentary elections.

Setbacks and Resilience

The material advances secured for workers and the poor during the UP’s first year resulted in significant increases in mass support. Their growing empowerment only deepened their identification with the Chilean road.

In its first national electoral test, Allende’s coalition exceeded all expectations, taking just over half of all valid ballots in the 1971 local elections. Both the Socialists and Communists increased their support, the former by 10 points, while the CDs held their share and the conservative National Party (PN) saw its share drop by nearly half.

The material advances secured for workers and the poor during the UP’s first year resulted in significant increases in mass support.

In addition to expanding popular support from 37 to 51 percent, the UP continued to face a divided opposition. Surging preferences for socialism and quarreling elites was precisely what Allende needed. Unfortunately, this favorable configuration crumbled over the next two years.

The next major test at the ballot box came in March 1973. By then, the combined effects of sabotage of distribution, merchant hoarding, and an international commercial blockade had badly eroded workers’ income gains. On top of endemic shortages of key wage goods, rising inflation meant real wages contracted significantly, by 23 percent in 1972 and even further in 1973.

Both wings of the opposition wagered that these hardships would erode popular commitments to Chilean socialism. Each side hoped to gain the upper hand in order to dictate the terms of a UP capitulation. Against their prognosis, however, support for the UP held up, falling only slightly to 44 percent. Compared to 1970, the socialist option gained an even more commanding plurality.

The failure to weaken the UP at the polls promoted elite opponents to abandon their tactical alliance for defeating Allende’s government by electoral means. They fully embraced instead a strategic unity for quashing Chile’s road to socialism extraconstitutionally. Realizing their inability to achieve the upper hand politically, professional modernizers joined the economic ruling class’s mission to topple the UP.

From that point forward, the country’s politics featured a sequence of maneuvers to end the government. Truckers paralyzed transport again, professional guilds shut down health care and other essential areas, fascistic shock troops rampaged, and Congress obstructed the administration by impeaching one minister after another.

The final move came in late August, when CD and PN congressmen approved a resolution by eighty-one to forty-seven votes mandating “authorities” to “put an immediate end” to “breach[es of] the Constitution . . . with the goal of redirecting government activity toward the path of law . . .” In short, Chilean elites had put aside their differences, unequivocally calling on the military to overthrow the UP.

Balancing Act

By the middle of 1973, the UP’s balancing act had failed: the inevitable impasse foretold by dominant analyses had arrived. At that point, defeat was almost unavoidable: either Allende backed down, whether by resigning or offering all the concessions demanded by the opposition, or the looming confrontation would touch off and crush socialist reforms and forces.

In the end, a version of the latter scenario unfolded. The final showdown for which the MIR and left-wing Socialists agitated and prepared turned out to be a one-sided class war. No serious groundwork to overturn bourgeois institutions and ruling classes had occurred. Indeed, no such preparation could have taken place or succeeded.

Not only were three years absurdly insufficient to raise the working-class armies the ultras fantasized about. More to the point, Chile’s road to socialism was never to be an insurrectionary “war of movement.”

Instead, it turned on the constant development of working-class organization and power, the expansion of which aimed to hold the ruling class at bay, while radically transforming governing institutions into a democratic and emancipatory socialist order. It is therefore critical to pose one more question: Could Allende’s delicate balancing resting on expanding working-class power have been sustained?

Wedge Tactics

Although the UP appeared to reach a dead end following the March 1973 elections, the thesis of Allende’s inevitable doom is overstated. Both versions of this thesis disregard the possibility that the key requirements for UP success remained current even beyond that year’s intensifying challenges.

Of course, ruling elites might have orchestrated a coup even if the UP had continued to foster these crucial conditions; after all, key sections of business and revanchist managerial and military sections were openly calling for it. But if imperialist intervention was not determinant, and elite positions were subject to change, then socialist decisions could still decisively shape the outcome.

Even as late as March 1973, latitude remained for impeding elite unity and gaining additional, and pivotal, working-class approval.

In the crucial moments when elite alignments were taking shape, protecting Chile’s road to socialism necessitated maintaining a wedge between the CDs and economic oligarchs and attaining even broader mass support. These achievements would surely have raised the barriers to military intervention. Both were feasible.

Dominant analyses of the UP’s failure deny this possibility. They treat the balance of power as an immutable boundary and argue that the array of class forces at that moment called for definitive measures. The “rupturist” view insists that the opposing camps were set in stone, and that further delay only advantaged the ruling class. The “accommodationist” view, on the other hand, holds that the extant positions of social constituencies required Allende to yield immediately to his opponents’ demands.

In reality, even as late as March 1973, latitude remained for impeding elite unity and gaining additional, and pivotal, working-class approval. In fact, these dual imperatives were complementary. And they hinged on the UP’s approach to the CDs.

This was not because concessions to its conservative leadership could be traded for the completion of Allende’s term. Rather, it reflected the persistent commitment to anti-capitalist policies among the influential Christian Democrat left wing and among a critical swath of the party’s working-class constituents. Cooperation with the former would have undercut the putschist intrigues of its right-wing leadership, while constructive dialogue with radical Christian workers would have buttressed the UP against the coup plotters.

The Christian Democrat Left

Given the indispensability of a broadened majoritarian mass base, it is useful to consider the implications of engaging with the CD mass base. In a sense, this involves asking how much more working-class support the UP could have tapped, and how much might come from CD rank-and-filers.

The UP had achieved hegemonic influence among Chilean workers by the time of the coup.

It is true that the UP had achieved hegemonic influence among Chilean workers by the time of the coup. Overall, the socialist electorate had swelled from 5.5 percent in 1952 to roughly half of all voters in twenty years. The bulk of this dramatic and sustained growth came from industrial labor.

Fairly reliable surveys of Greater Santiago, an area comprising more than one-quarter of the country’s population, revealed that over the fifteen-year period leading up to the coup, blue-collar workers consistently accounted for around half of all UP support. Unsurprisingly, increasing shares of blue-collar workers identified with the radical coalition.

While the percentage of white-collar workers reporting a preference for Allende’s program grew from 15.5 percent in 1958 to 52 percent in 1972 — an impressive jump! — proportions of blue-collar supporters rose to 69 percent. Precisely when discontent with Allende spiked following the 1972 truckers’ shutdown, workers were overwhelmingly coming to his defense.

Yet even as the UP had indisputably galvanized supermajoritarian backing among wage earners, important sections continued to sympathize with the CDs. Following the party’s ascent after its 1957 founding, general CD support declined quickly, from 42 percent in 1965 to 26 percent in 1971. Nonetheless, during those years, its working-class constituency remained stable.

After Frei mustered nearly three-fifths of blue-collar voters in his successful 1964 campaign, thereafter, about one-quarter of these wage earners consistently identified with the CDs until the coup. These were not the privileged employees typically associated with the CDs; indeed, 46 percent and 36 percent of professionals and white-collar employees, respectively, identified with the party in 1972, according to the above-cited survey series.

Nor were they disproportionately unorganized and informal wage earners, among whom the CDs had cultivated a strong base. Almost the exact same proportion of unionized workers — 24.8 percent — voted for the CDs in the momentous CUT elections held in April of that year. Even as over two-thirds of low-skilled and manufacturing employees rallied behind the UP, this hard-core minority stuck with the party.

Countering the Coup Plotters

A solid proportion of these workers could have been counted on to defend Chile’s road to socialism. After all, most manufacturing wage earners who voted CD in 1970 enthusiastically backed Tomic’s program of socializing industry in the form of “workers’ firms.” After Frei’s government was judged too moderate, Tomic’s radical reform program, which was only slightly more moderate than Allende’s, helped preserve substantial working-class backing for the CDs.

Indeed, polls that year revealed that a full 12 percent of CD voters identified as leftists, which in the Chilean context meant adopting anti-capitalist positions. Overall, 62 percent of respondents — nearly twice Allende’s vote share — agreed that the state should socialize properties of the wealthy. Even after economic difficulties began mounting in mid-1972, poor and working people of all partisan stripes continued to approve of Allende’s government.

Well into 1973, popular sectors characterized by Christian Democrat sympathies, such as rural laborers and urban shanty dwellers, endorsed Allende.

Well into 1973, popular sectors characterized by CD sympathies, such as rural laborers and urban shanty dwellers, endorsed Allende. Nearly two-thirds of respondents who prioritized completing the land reform process or solving the housing crisis rated him favorably. As among the overall working population, a sizable minority of them would have been CD loyalists.

Preserving the affinity of CD voters would have added significantly to a pro-socialist bloc. The sympathy of a solid portion of unionized workers alone would have restored the majority that had voted for UP in 1971.

If just half of CD votes in the CUT elections had been added to the 1973 UP totals, the socialist vote would have increased by a couple of percentage points. The addition of half of the CD’s unionized peasants would have bumped the pro-socialist total by the same amount, producing parity with the anti-UP opposition.

More decisively, the addition of a sizable fraction of unorganized CD-leaning laborers along with a chunk of organized members of the party’s popular sector organizations would have given Chilean socialism a significant overall majority. Had popular preferences in mid-1973 been reversed, arrayed 55 to 44 percent in favor of the UP, the coup plotters would have been, if not deterred, substantially hobbled.

Partisan Dynamics

If working-class Chileans overwhelmingly favored socialist transformation, why did a strong majority favoring the Chilean road to socialism fail to materialize? The answer lies in the interparty dynamics and the influence partisan leaderships exerted on rank-and-file constituencies.

In the hyperpartisan context of 1960s and ’70s Chile, the positions of ordinary Chileans reflected the polarization among political officials.

In the hyperpartisan context of 1960s and 1970s Chile, and after decades in which parties helped lead the expansion of mass organizations, the positions of ordinary Chileans reflected the polarization among political officials. Although the mass constituencies of parties had developed a keen appreciation of their material interests and demands, this was ultimately filtered through the calculations of the vibrant party apparatuses that guided their political activity. Confronted with the fervent debates over competing visions of the future of Chilean society, rank and filers tended to follow the strategies preferred by reliable party leaders.

In the case of working-class CD constituents, they trusted the orientation of figures like Frei’s rival Tomic and other left-wingers. They repudiated what they perceived as the MIR’s youthful and reckless adventurism, rejected the armed-struggle line that remained an official SP plank, and trembled at “dictatorship of the proletariat” proclamations. Already skeptical of the belligerent rhetoric — and often shocking actions — of many UP parties and militants, many CD workers felt their leaders’ opposition offered a more trustworthy and less costly road map to socialist reform.

Crucially, those same CD leaders sought a settlement with Allende until the March 1973 vote. Throughout, the party’s left wing insisted that Chile’s future must be socialist and that the UP and the CDs had to find common ground to move the country in this direction.

In practice, this meant restricting the scope of ongoing expropriations, tamping down on preparations for armed confrontation, and offering explicit assurances of enduring political pluralism and civil rights. If these conditions were met, the party’s left publicly declared its willingness to endorse the government’s reforms.

A Necessary Risk

Of course, negotiating with the CDs was laden with risks, as the party’s conservatives undeniably wished to use talks to subvert the UP. This was a key reason that left-wing Socialists repudiated any compromise with the CDs.

Negotiating with the Christian Democrats was laden with risks, as the party’s conservatives undeniably wished to use talks to subvert the UP.

Further, those right-wing officials remained dominant within the party. The unwillingness of the Christian Democrats to pursue radical transformations under Frei and its prevailing hard line against Allende had pushed two important sections to defect and join the UP, first in 1969 and again in 1971. However, those breakaway groups, the Popular Unitary Action Movement (MAPU) and the Christian Left, while meaningful politically, lacked extensive mass bases.

By contrast, the wing led by Tomic and founder Renán Fuentealba enjoyed deep influence over the party’s working-class constituencies. It hoped to parlay this potent following into an agreement that could thwart the determination of their right-wing rivals to defeat the UP and Chile’s socialist turn. Although the CD left frequently excoriated the UP left, saving particular scorn for rash Socialists, criticisms were directed more at perceived UP sectarianism than its policies.

The Marxist-Christian alliance with which Tomic’s wing had flirted ahead of the 1970 elections had been frustrated. But the leftmost CDs continued promoting what Tomic called an “institutional and popular” revolutionary unity right up to the eve of the coup.

In short, they pursued a settlement aiming to unite UP and CD mass bases behind a broad consensus in favor of structural reforms. The pact’s institutional dimension involved partisan agreement at the level of governing apparatuses. An expanded popular unity entailed the strategic alignment of their constituents’ demands and collective action.

Missed Opportunity

The CD left’s proposals dovetailed with Allende’s calls for “negotiating and consolidating” the UP gains. Besides broadening the necessary pro-socialist majority, dialogue offered the chance for hoisting a counterweight to pro-coup CD leaders. Reaching a settlement would have given Tomic something to show for his efforts, thereby upgrading the Left’s standing in the party and rallying his working-class base to an anti-Frei pole.

Dialogue with the Christian Democrat left and an expanded working-class revolutionary alignment offered the UP its only chance for survival.

This intraparty shift, in turn, would likely have pulled the CD away from the increasingly emboldened coup plotters. At the very least, it could have prevented the party from unanimously backing parliament’s August 22 resolution. As a result, the pivotal reunification of modernizing managers and business elites might have been reversed. Allende’s hostility toward the avanzar sin transar directive of the MIR must be understood in this light.

Dialogue with the CD left and an expanded working-class revolutionary alignment offered the UP its only chance for survival. Far from representing a capitulation to elites, Allende’s call for negotiations and consolidation sought to unlock a formula, however unlikely, for a broader “institutional and popular unity” that would salvage the Chilean road to socialism.

Even if the ruling class had proceeded alone, the military would have hesitated. Observers of all political persuasions believe the army was reluctant to intervene without broad CD support, as this would have left the coup and military regime without any popular legitimacy.

Tragically, Allende and his allies were stymied. Hemmed in by the increasing bellicosity of the CD’s right-wing leadership, on one side, and the intransigent agitation of his Socialist comrades, on the other, Allende found himself out of options. The fruitlessness of negotiations diminished the CD left’s standing in the party and its influence over its mass working-class base.

The Junta’s Triumph

As a result, Frei and the new party head, Patricio Aylwin, who in a cruel twist would become Chile’s first postdictatorship president, emerged more empowered than ever to assert their dominance. It was only then, after prospects for grounding the Chilean road in even wider layers of the working class vanished, that the dichotomous impasse really took hold.

Once in power, however, the junta did not restore the status quo ante. It took total control of the state and society, unleashing a wave of repression that crushed the working class and its organizations and eventually embarking on a radical capitalist transformation.

The key point is that, however constrained, room existed for ongoing UP advances even after the March 1973 elections. The range of possibilities for socialist progress was largely demarcated by CD positioning. And CD decision-making, in turn, pivoted in no small way on how the UP’s strategic approach impacted the party’s relationship with its working-class base as well as its internal disputes.

A strategy that took the array of class forces as set in stone, to be mobilized in their current composition for confrontation, undercut the ability of the CD left to marshal its working-class constituents in favor of socialism. It also hampered the UP’s ability to reach one-quarter of the country’s laboring masses and to favorably shape the outcome of intra-CD rivalries.

By contrast, a strategy that adjusted its tactics to take account of the concerns of all workers would have preserved the chance of keeping wider constituents in the socialist camp. It would have enhanced the UP’s ability to forestall a full CD swing in favor of the coup, and thus hindered elite reunification behind capitalist counterrevolution.

As with the UP’s initial successes, any breakthrough for its survival depended on rooting the political and organizational strategies of the Chilean road to socialism even more deeply in, and among even broader layers of, Chile’s working class. Fifty years later, this remains indispensable in any revived socialist strategy.

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