By Our Own Means

Everyday Revolutionaries in Allende’s Chile

June 6, 2020

Book Cover: Beyond the Vanguard by Marian E. Schlotterbeck
Beyond the Vanguard: Everyday Revolutionaries in Allende’s Chile
by Marian E. Schlotterbeck
University of California Press
2018

For the past year, Chile has been the site of one of the world’s most insurgent anti-neoliberal rebellions. Few witnesses to the country’s current upheaval and antagonism could avoid recalling earlier moments in Chilean history. In the participatory assemblies and pitched street battles of late last year, the stirrings of a renewed fidelity to those who fought and were defeated in 1973 (in the overthrow of the Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende) were visible. The current moment marks an ideal backdrop for reflection upon that earlier series of eruptions from below, when the lower orders sought to remake society in their image.

In an influential piece published in the early years of the Pinochet dictatorship, Arturo Valenzuela and J. Samuel Valenzuela cast their eyes back upon the myriad divisions of the Allende period, distinguishing among other things between a maximalist and gradualist left. The Maximalists were critical of the reformist strategy of the ruling Popular Unity government – a coalition of Communists and Socialists – which sought to build socialism step by step, within the parliamentary institutions and juridical parameters of bourgeois legality. Allende called that strategy the Via Chilena, or Chilean Path.

For the Maximalists, the defeat of 1973 was a product of the impossibility of building a new world within the old ruling framework. They stressed that the ferocity of the right-wing opposition should have been anticipated, and the Popular Unity’s leadership ought to have been prepared to rout this challenge by reinforcing popular forms of power outside the existing state, including the defensive military training of neighbourhood and worker committees and rigorous organizing among soldiers and low-ranking officers.

The Movement of the Revolutionary Left

Not only did the Allende government not encourage forms of popular power, it actively sought to contain the independent momentum and radicalism of such powers that did emerge autonomously. A maximalist sentiment of sorts was widespread among Chileans who had become committed to a vision of socialism as a product of their own initiative and volition, which found its clearest organizational expression in the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR), as well as – despite differences between them – the key factions of the left wing of Popular Unity itself (the Left Socialists, the Unitary Popular Action Movement (MAPU), and part of the Christian Left).

Gradualists, by contrast, didn’t look back upon the 1973 overthrow of Allende as the necessary outcome of a failed strategic orientation on the part of the Popular Unity coalition. Instead, they saw the gradualist program, even in hindsight, as the only path that could have been reasonably entertained under the circumstances, given the minority conditions of Allende’s institutional rule and what they saw as the unpreparedness of the working class and other popular sectors to immediately transform Chilean society on revolutionary grounds. The viability of gradualism might have been improved, in this view, with a mere change of tactics that left unaltered the basic strategic bearings.

Crucially, efforts to win over the most progressive currents within the centrist Christian Democrats might have been more effective, according to gradualists, if the maximalist Left had been better contained by Allende. Had the Popular Unity administration moved more slowly with reforms until a stronger base of majority support for socialism could be constructed, this might also have aided the prospects of a slow-but-steady transition. Exaggerated and premature polarization of Chilean society, from this vantage point, drove the middle classes and their Christian Democratic representatives into an alliance with the far right and the military. Gradualists contended that this might have been avoided had the revolutionary Left not placed such strain on the Allende government through its insatiable efforts to radicalize and accelerate land occupations, worker takeovers, urban squats, and the like.

The gradualist camp consisted principally of the right wing of the Popular Unity. Especially important in promulgating this perspective were the Communist Party, the moderate wing of the Socialist Party – of which Allende was a part – the Worker and Peasant MAPU, and the moderate faction of the Christian Left. In the wider field of force of 1970-1973, the maximalists and gradualists were together arraigned against the centrist Christian Democrats, and an eclectic right, encompassing the National Party, the proto-fascist Fatherland and Freedom, the commanding heights of the armed forces, and the domestic influences of American imperialism, with Richard Nixon at the helm in Washington.

Public and scholarly sensibility in Chile was, at least until recently, amenable to retrospectives of the revolutionary Left of the Allende period, and the MIR in particular, as extremist minoritarians whose provocations invited the iron intervention of the military. “At best,” Marian E. Schlotterbeck observes in her important new book, Beyond the Vanguard, “many observers saw these young revolutionaries as misguided idealists turned victims of state terrorism; at worst, as the main provocateurs of violent repression turned on themselves and society at large.”1Marian E. Schlotterbeck, Beyond the Vanguard: Everyday Revolutionaries in Allende’s Chile (Oakland: University of California Press, 2018), 4. She notes how that repression would claim the lives of 400 miristas in the opening two years of the dictatorship alone.

Beyond the Vanguard offers a careful corrective to the reigning image of the MIR. Between 2008 and 2015 Schlotterbeck carried out sixty formal interviews with former MIR militants, together with former participants in the party’s most important fronts, and a smaller number of interviews stretching across former members of MAPU, the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, Catholic Action, the Christian Democrats, and independent leftists.

Unlike the protagonists featured in even the best literature on the MIR in Spanish, Schlotterbeck’s principal informants were not generally leading figures of the party, but rather grassroots activists unaccustomed “to telling their stories,” and lacking “neatly packaged narratives of heroic deeds.”2Schlotterbeck, 5.

Beyond the Vanguard is mainly concerned with how the opportunity of the Popular Unity’s ascension to office was seized upon by the grassroots—both what they did, and the ‘content of their radical dreams.’

Redirecting attention from Santiago to the southern port city of Concepción, as well as its adjacent textile and coal enclaves, and from the practices and motivations of Allende’s state managers to those of rank-and-file MIR radicals, Beyond the Vanguard is mainly concerned with how the opportunity of the Popular Unity’s ascension to office was seized upon by the grassroots – both what they did, and the “content of their radical dreams.”3Schlotterbeck, 6. Most of the text is comprised of targeted inquiries into the MIR’s role in the student movement, labour organizing, urban housing struggles, a series of escalating popular assemblies in Concepción in the early 1970s and, ultimately, the resistance mounted to the onset of the counter-revolution.

Schlotterbeck is interested in what she terms “everyday revolutions.” Her analytical attentiveness to the lives of ordinary miristas builds on those classic accounts of the Allende years which were sensitive to the direct self-activity and creativity of the oppressed, and the tensions between the revolution from below and the revolution from above. Head and shoulders above most of the relevant literature in this regard is Peter Winn’s monumental social history, Weavers of the Revolution. Winn recounts the struggles of the Yarur mill textile workers in Santiago, who were the first to seize control of a factory through their own ingenuity and organization, “securing its socialization” against the will of Allende, “and the first to experiment with worker co-management.”4Peter Winn, Weavers of the Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press), 6.

“Within the revolutionary camp as a whole,” Winn argues, “the Yarur toma and its aftermath underscored the tension between revolution from below and revolution from above, the contest between workers and politicians, the clash between leaders and masses and their differing visions of the revolutionary process. It was a tension that was never resolved, and in the end, it proved fatal to the Chilean revolution.” For Allende, “Controlled change, with a disciplined mass base and a clear hierarchy of command was central to his strategy. The revolution from below at the Yarur mill threatened this delicate edifice, and Allende was determined to save it before it was too late.”5Winn, 7.

History from Below

In Weavers of the Revolution, Winn sought “to fuse history from above with history from below,” to marry a “microhistory of the factory study,” rooted in oral history, with “national perspectives and written sources,” and to situate the Yarur workers’ particular struggles within wider, dynamic relations between labour, the state, and capital.6Winn, 8.

In Beyond the Vanguard, by contrast, the focus is more one-sidedly concerned with “the form of quotidian transformations in people’s everyday lives,” and the subjective processes of self-transformation through collective struggle. Shared initiatives to “reorganize daily life and democratize relations in classrooms, workplaces, and even the spaces of the home” are the chief narrative animators: “to acquire a political education not as indoctrination but as critical thinking, to speak before one’s peers in an assembly, to occupy empty land and build one’s home, to take over a bakery and ensure that bread reached those who needed it most, and to feel capable of shaping one’s own destiny.”7Schlotterbeck, 6.

The MIR “came into being and enjoyed its widest popular support in Concepción province.” In formal terms, the MIR was founded on August 15, 1965, when sixty delegates from different factions of a fragmented revolutionary Left “converged on an anarchist shoemakers’ union”8Schlotterbeck, 18. in Santiago to hash out a common program. Assembling dissidents from the long-standing Socialist and Communist parties, with historical roots in labour organizing, together with the university reform movement of the mid-1960s, the MIR “bridged two generations – the 1920s and 1930s Trotskyists, socialists, and radical syndicalists and the 1960s youth predominantly from Concepción.”9Schlotterbeck, 42.

While its opponents on the Left and Right often characterized the MIR as little more than a middle-class student movement, Schlotterbeck demonstrates how “during the Popular Unity years the MIR in Concepción became a cross-class movement of workers, pobladores (the urban poor), and students.”10Schlotterbeck, 12. From the outset, the MIR defined its politics as revolutionary in order to distinguish itself from the reformism of the Chilean Communist Party. The movement’s founding charter “criticized the ‘bureaucratic leaderships of the traditional Left,’ who ‘defraud workers with a permanent electoral dance, forgetting direct action and the revolutionary tradition of the Chilean proletariat.” The charter advertised the movement’s “explicit goal of ‘overthrowing the capitalist system and [replacing] it with a government of workers and peasants’.”11Schlotterbeck, 18. Such a government was to be brought into being through class struggle and armed popular insurrection.

Top-down histories of the MIR, focusing exclusively or primarily on the national leadership in Santiago, have missed, “how the MIR was far more than the masculinist, Leninist, armed ‘ultra-left,’ as it has often been portrayed. Disproportionate to its size, the MIR became an important ally in experiments of popular democracy and grassroots empowerment during the thousand days of Salvador Allende’s presidency.”12Schlotterbeck, 13.

Schlotterbeck’s novel treatment of the MIR’s grassroots highlights how militants frequently worked in united fronts with Popular Unity parties in Concepción, emphasized “direct action, grassroots activism, and participatory democracy,” and responded more than the national leadership “to local conditions and labour traditions,” seeking “to make revolutionary change more pragmatic and less dogmatic by challenging power relations in factories, communities, and even families.”13Schlotterbeck, 13.

Miristas in Concepción fiercely defended the Popular Unity government against the increasingly belligerent right-wing opposition, even as they simultaneously “propelled the question of popular power – the idea that everyday Chileans should have a say in the direction of the revolution – to the forefront of national debate…. Protected and emboldened by the institutional ‘revolution from above,’ grassroots movements mobilized in ways that simultaneously pressured the government and demonstrated their capacity to solve their own problems.”14Schlotterbeck, 92.

A nation-wide university reform movement over the mid to late1960s found especially powerful expression in Concepción. In 1964, the Leftist University Student Movement (MUI) was formed at the University of Concepción, acting as a training ground for future mirista student militants.

The local student movement cultivated an “assembly-based participatory political culture with highly visible direct actions, including marches and skirmishes with police in the city center and strikes and the occupation of buildings on campus.”15Schlotterbeck, 19. When the police responded with violence, sections of organized labour – from teachers to railroad workers – would roll out in the streets in defence of students.

A growing number of scholarships and subsidized housing meant that the university was no longer the exclusive haunt of the upper echelons of Concepción society. Migrant working-class children from surrounding industrial towns like Tomé and Coronel had an increasing presence on campus and would, in coming years, act as conduits for greater student-worker collaboration throughout the province of Concepción. Reforms conceded by university authorities in the face of pressure included the right of students to vote and to be represented in their departments, schools, and institutes of the university.

While Schlotterbeck celebrates the democratizing effects of the local socialist student movement and its worker allies in Concepción in this period, she is unsparing in her treatment of the short-sighted and militarist tendencies associated with the MIR’s national leadership, as students displaced the older generation of Trotskyists and labour organizers.

Based on a certain reading of Che Guevara and responding to what seemed to them narrowing electoral possibilities for the far left in Chile, the new national leadership oriented the MIR toward an openly militaristic, guerrilla option, alienating the Trotskyists in the process. Upping the ante, in mid-July 1969, Enríquez announced a split in the movement.

Clamping down on the participatory, assemblyist culture of the early MIR and the wider student-worker milieu of which its Concepción branch in particular had been a part, the national secretariat elevated political-military groups within the internal order of the MIR, and enforced a new regime of top-down authority.

However, the ascension of Allende to office in 1970 called into question the militarist turn, even if the internal tensions of the MIR over strategy weren’t entirely relieved. With Allende in office, the MIR’s clandestine military activity no longer made sense even from a militarist-guerrilla logic, and the movement returned to its earlier emphasis on building above-ground mass fronts. “The ascendancy of popular mobilization during the Popular Unity years,” Schlotterbeck notes, “reoriented the national MIR to prioritize social struggle over armed struggle – temporarily differentiating it from other armed revolutionary lefts in the Southern Cone.”16Schlotterbeck, 34.

Revolutionary Workers Front

In 1971, the MIR established a Revolutionary Workers Front (FTR) through which it contested union elections at the local level, and within the national labour federation (CUT). MIR contacts with Tomé textile workers were facilitated by the earlier gains the movement had made in Concepción as part of the university reform movement. Less than a year into the Allende experiment, the Department of Sociology at the University of Concepción established a study program for workers.

Another point of entry for the MIR in Tomé was the organization of working-class students in the local high school, through which they later made inroads into working class families. In the coal mining town of Coronel, despite Communist Party dominance, “support for the MIR…expanded from just four recruits in 1966 to winning victories in coal miner union elections in 1972.” By 1966-67, the local MIR Coronel leadership included “a coal miner, a white-collar employee at the mines, a construction worker, a fisherman, two high school students, and a school teacher.”17Schlotterbeck, 46.

In spite of the short-lived guerrilla turn of the MIR in the late 1960s, local grassroots activists continued to identify as miristas and continued their rank-and-file organizing initiatives. Schlotterbeck is cautious not to exaggerate the MIR’s clout within organized labour during the Allende years, while nonetheless signalling the importance of the role it did manage to play. Crucial to the advances of the MIR in the industrial enclaves of Tomé and Coronel were “the autonomous initiatives of local activists.”18Schlotterbeck, 60. The organization was most effective at recruiting “when its political actions had a direct impact on the way people lived, which in turn empowered individuals to conceive of themselves, their neighbours, and their rights in society in new ways.”19Schlotterbeck, 62.

In the penultimate section of Beyond the Vanguard, Schlotterbeck turns her attention more squarely to a critique of the national leadership of the MIR, distinguishing it from the more open and democratic features of the organization in Concepción.

Juxtaposing the national and Concepción leaderships of the MIR, Schlotterbeck paints a picture of social isolation and ideological rigidity, on the one hand, and an attentive, grounded, responsive militancy, on the other. Proximity to rank-and-file, working class militants was an overriding determinant of the latter reality. Exaggerated internal hierarchy and claustrophobic party structures prevented open debate and disclosure about “disagreements over the changing political situation in Chile and the adequacy of [the MIR’s] strategy and military preparations for a potential coup,” while inhibiting “consideration of alternative strategies and more honest assessments of the MIR’s real capacity on the ground to resist a coup.”20Schlotterbeck, 136.

Legacies

What of the MIR’s legacy in contemporary Chile? One direct measure is the life trajectories of surviving militants. “Forty years later,” Schlotterbeck notes, “most of the young people and students who joined the revolutionary Left in Concepción are working in the fields of education, health care, and social work,” with some having reopened the famous sociology department at the University of Concepción after completing doctoral degrees.21Schlotterbeck, 163. Still others, “remain active in groups of former political prisoners, fighting to ensure access to adequate health care and to create local human rights memorials.”22Schlotterbeck, 164. Many, movingly, continue to identify personally as miristas – for life – even if they are not members of any formal political party or organization at present. A less literal inheritance can be discerned in the embodied return – student-worker riots, indigenous resistance, and popular-feminist insurgency – of the strategic political issues and assembly-style practices raised during the best moments of MIR activity in the late1960s and early 1970s.

Schlotterbeck’s great service to contemporary movements in Beyond the Vanguard is precisely her assiduous and deliberate recovery of the finest of the MIR’s grassroots traditions in Concepción, a reclamation that at the same time refuses to shy away from honest and austere criticism where necessary.

Pivotal political lessons and vivid oral histories of everyday working-class heroism await readers of Beyond the Vanguard, even if some might remain, like me, unpersuaded, analytically by a certain one-sided attentiveness to the subjective elements of revolutionary process and, politically by the concluding strategic notes expressing scepticism of the party form per se, and an inexacting embrace of horizontalism as the revolutionary horizon of the here and now.

1    Marian E. Schlotterbeck, Beyond the Vanguard: Everyday Revolutionaries in Allende’s Chile (Oakland: University of California Press, 2018), 4.

2    Schlotterbeck, 5.

3    Schlotterbeck, 6.

4    Peter Winn, Weavers of the Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press), 6.

5    Winn, 7.

6    Winn, 8.

7    Schlotterbeck, 6.

8    Schlotterbeck, 18.

9    Schlotterbeck, 42.

10  Schlotterbeck, 12.

11  Schlotterbeck, 18.

12  Schlotterbeck, 13.

13  Schlotterbeck, 13.

14  Schlotterbeck, 92.

15  Schlotterbeck, 19.

16  Schlotterbeck, 34.

17  Schlotterbeck, 46.

18  Schlotterbeck, 60.

19  Schlotterbeck, 62.

20  Schlotterbeck, 136.

21  Schlotterbeck, 163.

22  Schlotterbeck, 164.

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