Reform or revolution? The lessons of Chile — a contribution to a debate

By Geoff Mirelowitz

November 14, 2021 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from World-Outlook — September 11 marked the 48th anniversary of the 1973 bloody military coup, backed by Washington, which overthrew the elected Unidad Popular (Popular Unity) government led by Salvador Allende in Chile.

On September 12, Jacobin, a magazine that describes itself as “a leading voice of the American left, offering socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture,” published an interview by Mia Dragnic with Tomás Moulian titled, “Salvador Allende Was Overthrown Because His Government Showed Chile Could Be Transformed.” Moulian is a sociologist today. According to Jacobin, he was “one of the leading militants of the Popular Unitary Action Movement (MAPU Obrero Campesino), a left-wing party that played a key role in Allende’s Popular Unity government,” and a “pre-candidate for the Communist Party in the 2005 presidential election.”

Eric Blanc’s article, “Socialists Should Take the Right Lessons from the Russian Revolution,” also originally appeared in Jacobin in July.

At first glance, these two articles may seem unrelated. Blanc does not discuss the defeat in Chile and Moulian’s interview does not refer to Blanc’s article. However, both pose the same issues: How can a fight be led to end the evils of capitalism and transform society to open the road to socialism? Is a genuine revolution led by the working class necessary to achieve this?

“The central task, and the key political dilemma,” Blanc argues, “is how to fight for transformative reforms that strengthen and unite the working class, especially in ways that open up, rather than close off, avenues for further organizing workers to overcome capitalist domination.”

Moulian argues the Allende government’s experience confirms this was accomplished in Chile. He goes on to say, “The fundamental lesson of the Popular Unity years is that, despite everything, it is absolutely worth trying to transform Chilean society.”

In one sense that is inarguable. In the almost 50 years since the Chilean events, the capitalist class in every country has proven over-and-over it offers no solutions to the crises facing working people. Capitalism today increases the exploitation that makes us the victims of its system, while the billionaire owners of property accumulate more wealth at our expense. So, “despite everything,” it is always “absolutely worth trying” to transform every society disfigured by the profit system. The alternative is to accept the world as it is today.

There should be no debate among socialists about the need to fight for reforms in any capitalist society. Improving the immediate conditions of working people is key to the struggle for socialism. But socialists must also tell fellow workers the truth: as long as the capitalist class holds political power, no reform is guaranteed nor truly transformative.  

What strategy can achieve genuinely transformative change? Here both Blanc and Moulian offer the wrong answers. Blanc argues for a “consistent orientation to winning a socialist parliamentary majority and democratizing the existing state.” Moulian says that was the right road in Chile, even though it ended in disaster.

In the article “What Are the Right Lessons for Socialists?” Mike Taber answered Blanc. In the introduction to the re-publication of that debate[1], the editors of World-Outlook pointed to some of the important political lessons that Fidel Castro drew from the Chilean experience. The Cuban leader did so in speeches and interviews during his 25-day visit to Chile in 1971, and again, following the coup and Allende’s death in 1973.

So, it is a low point of Moulian’s interview when he says:

“[T]he most important thing he [Castro] did during that time was take a position on the Chilean road to socialism. He spoke in favor of it and expressed his admiration, with all the differences it represented with respect to the Cuban experience.

“Castro essentially said that the path taken was the only road the Chilean revolution could take—Chile being a democratic country, he said, the peaceful and institutional transition to socialism was the correct one.”

What did Fidel say?

That is not true, as anyone can clearly see by reading Fidel’s words for themselves.

“This must be clearly understood,” Castro told an audience at the University of Concepción on November 18, 1971, “a process is not yet a revolution. A process is a road; a process is a stage that is beginning.”

“When Popular Unity won, there were many dangers, many obstacles,” Fidel explained in a speech at the State Technical University. “The electoral victory was like a door slightly ajar.”

It is true he expressed confidence that the dangers in Chile could be overcome. The Cuban experience, he acknowledged, “was different from yours.” He continued, “I don’t believe there is any easy road to revolution, but I know you Chileans will find a solution to all these problems.” He insisted, however, on one more fundamental idea: “Of course, it is a political axiom that there can be no revolution without the total destruction of the old bourgeois state.” (Emphasis added.)

Moulian and Blanc diverge sharply from Fidel’s conclusions, which are at the heart of our disagreement in the debate with Blanc.

What did the Cuban revolution do?

These differences are not primarily theoretical. Their practical importance can be understood if we look at a few steps the Cuban revolution took to destroy the old bourgeois state. Joseph Hansen outlined these clearly in his book Dynamics of the Cuban Revolution – A Marxist Appreciation.

“In January of 1959,” wrote Hansen, “when the people of Cuba moved in and took power in all the cities of the country…they held citizens’ tribunals, where they put these criminals, these butchers of the Batista regime, on trial.”

The new Cuban government, Hansen explained, “First…secured its governing position by smashing the old armed forces and police. It supplanted these,” he continued, “with the rebel army, a new police largely recruited from the ranks of the revolutionary fighters, and later it set up a people’s militia, almost entirely proletarian and peasant in composition.”

Some capitalist political figures still occupied prominent positions in the Cuban government as it took these steps. “These figures either turned against the government or were pushed out, being replaced by active participants in the preceding civil war” with Batista’s army, Hansen explained, “however youthful and inexperienced in their new duties.” One such change signaled the political meaning of these steps. In November 1959, Che Guevara, one of the central leaders of the revolutionary struggle, replaced Felipe Pazos as head of Cuba’s National Bank, while also serving as minister of industry.

These measures were intimately connected to others, including the truly radical Agrarian Reform Law of May 17, 1959. The destruction of the old bourgeois state signaled to the workers and peasants of Cuba that the capitalists and landowners would not be allowed to obstruct the truly transformative measures the revolution had promised. The contrast with what happened in Chile could not be sharper.

Is there a ‘peaceful road’ to socialism?

Fidel understood and explained a fact that proponents of the reform of capitalism do not. While a peaceful transition to socialism is desirable, history teaches that a strategy based on that hope can only lead to the kind of bloody defeat suffered in Chile.

At a December 3, 1971, press conference, Fidel said that “the revolutionaries are not the inventors of violence. It was class society throughout history that created, developed, and imposed its system, always through repression and violence.”

Those who seek to change society do not determine whether violence erupts while making that change. Fidel hammered this point home in his farewell speech at the national stadium in Santiago, Chile, on December 2, 1971:

“All obsolete social systems and societies have defended themselves when threatened with extinction. They have defended themselves with tremendous violence throughout history. No social system ever resigned itself to disappear from the face of the earth of its own free will.”

Fidel knew well that in Chile an attempt was underway to use the institutions of the existing capitalist state, in just the way Eric Blanc advocates 50 years later. For that reason, Fidel explained at the December 3 press conference, “The people need to advance and if democratic ways are closed to them—the so-called democratic ways established by the institutions of the ruling class—then it will be the oppressors and the privileged who will be showing the people which way they are to take, as has always happened. If the oppressors and the privileged block all the roads, even roads that have been opened, there’ll be no alternative for the people but that of revolutionary violence.”

He underlined this point at the national stadium. “What do the exploiters do when their own institutions no longer guarantee their rule?… They simply go ahead and destroy them.” Those who advocate the reform of capitalism, as opposed to a revolutionary transformation, ignore this fact. The capitalist class will not hesitate—including under conditions of relative bourgeois democracy—to destroy its own democratic institutions when they do not serve its needs.

Fidel then engaged in a dialogue with the large crowd, when its response indicated these lessons were not understood.

“Every revolutionary process teaches the people in a few months things which, otherwise, it would take them dozens of years to learn. This involves a question: Who will learn more and sooner? Who will develop more awareness faster? The exploiters or the exploited? Who will learn faster from the lessons of this process? The people or the enemies of the people?” he asked. 

“The people!” the crowd exclaimed. 

Fidel disagrees with the masses

“Then allow me to say that I don’t agree this time with the masses,” Fidel replied.

He then referred to news reports that a high-ranking U.S. official had predicted that “The days of the people’s government in Chile are numbered.”  Fidel asked, “What is this assurance based on?”

Only the Chilean people could provide the answer, he said, but he then asked the crowd for permission to express his own opinion “on matters of concept.” He continued: “I say that assurance is based on the weakness of this revolutionary process, on the weakness of the ideological battle, on the weakness of the mass struggle, on weaknesses displayed in the face of the enemy. The outside enemy, which supports the inside enemy, is trying to take advantage of the slightest crack, the slightest weakness.”

Fidel then pointed—almost two years before the tragic coup—to the danger signs he saw. “There are countless examples of this,” he said. “You’re going through that period in the process in which the fascists—to call them by their right name—are trying to beat you to the streets, are trying to beat you out of the middle strata of the population.”

That process intensified over the next two years. Small shopkeepers went on strike against government efforts to search out hoarded goods. Upper and middle-class women took to the streets blaming the government for the shortages of necessities. Fascist and other right-wing forces began to rise and carry out violent attacks, including bombings, assassinations, and other provocations. Right-wing employers, most importantly truck owners, led “strikes” that paralyzed the economy. Meanwhile, the capitalist press lied incessantly about the Unidad Popular and the workers’ movement. Behind all of this, was the hand of U.S. imperialism; the “outside enemy” Fidel referred to.

The moment of decision arrives

Events headed towards a showdown. The outcome revealed how correct Fidel was about the weakness of the revolutionary process and the fallacy that the alleged control of the legislature and administrative apparatus of the capitalist state could prevent a violent military coup. Inadvertently in his interview in Jacobin, Moulian acknowledges this.

He refers to the bombing of La Moneda, the presidential palace, by the Chilean Air Force. “It’s important to underscore that, militarily speaking, the bombing did not make any sense at all,” says Moulian. “La Moneda had already been defeated by all branches of the armed forces, which by then had united to overthrow the government. There was no longer any way to resist.”

The coup began at 7:00 am September 11, 1973, with the capture of the city of Valparaíso, a port and naval base. Following the bombing of La Moneda, the remaining defenders surrendered at 2:30 pm the same day, in less than eight hours. There was no effective resistance because no effective resistance had been politically prepared or organized.

Speaking to a large crowd in Havana later that month, Fidel discussed the Chilean events. One of his most elementary points concerned a rifle he had given Allende as a gift in 1971. “If every worker and every farmer had had a rifle like it in his hands,” Fidel explained, “there wouldn’t have been any fascist coup!”

This sheds light on one of Eric Blanc’s key arguments. He cites the strategy adopted by German social-democratic leader Karl Kautsky after he broke with the revolutionary tradition of Marxism. “Kautsky argued that this path,” the reform path Blanc advocates today, “would at some point require the election of a socialist majority to parliament, and that this body would serve as a centerpiece of workers’ rule,” wrote Blanc.

“Kautsky thus rejected the relevance of an insurrectionary strategy for parliamentary regimes, where a majority of workers would try to use the existing democratic channels to advance their interests,” Blanc added.

In an earlier debate with Blanc in 2019, Mike Taber dispelled the idea that a revolutionary strategy and an “insurrectionary strategy” are identical.

“First of all, Lenin and the early Communist movement never put forward an ‘insurrectionary strategy’,” Taber explained. “Their strategy was aimed at mobilizing the proletariat and its allies around the fight for their class interests, and to direct it toward the conquest of political power and the overthrow of the rule of the bourgeoisie. In this, they utilized all methods. They also recognized the reality that socialism could not be reformed into existence; a revolution was required to overturn capitalism’s political apparatus. [Emphasis added.] This revolution would lead to the dictatorship of the proletariat, based around a soviet-type system of workers’ democracy.

“There is no distinct ‘Leninist strategy of insurrection’,” Taber said, “any more than there’s a Leninist strategy of strikes, of demonstrations, of picket lines, of protest meetings, of study circles, or of fund appeals,” he wrote. The link to the full article is here.

Blanc ignores a lesson of the Russian Revolution

The Russian revolution of 1917 also faced the danger of a counter-revolutionary military coup. Lavr Kornilov, a tsarist general, was appointed head of the Russian armed forces in July by Alexander Kerensky. A leader of a party that called itself “Social Revolutionary,” Kerensky was then prime minister of the Provisional Government, a capitalist government that took power following the overthrow of the Tsar in February, opening a period of greater democratic rights. Kornilov organized a march on the Russian capital, Petrograd, in August, with the aim of imposing a military dictatorship and ending the revolutionary process that had opened in February.

Unlike Pinochet in Chile, Kornilov and his forces were soundly defeated. It is beyond the scope of this article to review that important history. Fortunately, Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky’s definitive History of the Russian Revolution is available both in print and online. The chapter titled “Kornilov’s Insurrection” can be found here.

Lenin, Trotsky, and the Bolshevik Party they led, acted on the same political understanding Fidel explained to Chilean working people over 50 years later. The institutions of the capitalist state cannot be relied upon to overturn capitalism and open the road to socialism. In fact, when working people win important reforms under capitalist rule—as in Russia in 1917 and Chile in 1971—the capitalist class will, just as Fidel explained, “simply go ahead and destroy them… when their own institutions no longer guarantee their rule.”

This understanding is not new. In 1871, Karl Marx wrote “The Civil War in France,” assessing the experience of the Paris Commune, the first workers’ government in world history. “But the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made State machinery and wield it for its own purposes,” Marx said, drawing one of the key lessons of those events.

Marx explained the nature of the government the revolutionary workers of Paris confronted. The French Revolution began in 1789 and overthrew the monarchy and feudalism. “During the subsequent regimes, the government, placed under parliamentary control—that is, under the direct control of the propertied classes,” Marx pointed out, “changed simultaneously with the economic changes of society. At the same pace at which the progress of modern industry developed, widened, intensified the class antagonism between capital and labor, the state power assumed more and more the character of the national power of capital over labor, of a public force organized for social enslavement, of an engine of class despotism.

“After every revolution marking a progressive phase in the class struggle,” Marx continued, “the purely repressive character of the state power stands out in bolder and bolder relief.”

This is why working people cannot wield the old state machinery for “transformative change,” as Blanc believes. Rather, as Fidel explained, a revolutionary process must organize and mobilize working people to take political power, destroy “the old bourgeois state,” and replace it with one of our own.

In his dialogue at Santiago’s national stadium, Fidel pointed to “the weakness of the ideological battle,” which workers and their allies needed to face in order to succeed. What was he referring to?

To make a successful revolution the majority of the working class must be won to a revolutionary perspective. That includes a basic understanding of the difference between the reform of capitalism and revolutionary change. The Communist Manifesto sums that up this way: “The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class.” At the same time, Marx and Engels insisted, communists “never cease, for a single instant, to instill into the working class the clearest possible recognition of the hostile antagonism between bourgeoisie and proletariat.”

The central difference in the debate with Eric Blanc and in understanding the defeat in Chile is not whether revolutionists should fight for reforms. That is a necessary starting point. A series of reforms, however, cannot end the rule of capital. The capitalist class will not accept deepening inroads on its power and privileges nor a genuine transformation of the state it has created to enforce its rule. The idea that such a peaceful transformation is possible, that the ruling class will not use the most horrific violence if it suffers setbacks in elections, is precisely the “ideological weakness” that Fidel warned the Chilean people about.

Fidel’s unequivocal conclusion was expressed in his September 28, 1973, speech in Havana. “The Guatemalan experience, the Salvadoran experience, the Chilean experience, the Bolivian experience, what have they taught us?” asked Fidel. “That there is only one path: revolution. That there is only one way: revolutionary armed struggle.”

He continued, in what is an unequivocal answer to the positions taken by Moulian and Blanc, “The oligarchy, reaction and imperialism use all these so-called constitutional mechanisms, the so-called representative democracy, to deceive the peoples.” In the 48 years since, there is no evidence to doubt those conclusions.


[1] For the first two parts of the debate on “Reform or Revolution,” published earlier by World-Outlook, see part 1 and part 2.