“People’s Power” (“The Battle of Chile III”) screened in London

On Wednesday, October 5th, in Bolívar Hall in London, there was a screening of “People's Power” (“El poder popular”) the third part of “The Battle of Chile” (“La batalla de Chile”), by Patricio Guzmán, a film produced in 1979. The film focuses on “People’s Power”, i.e. the formation of grassroots movements and organisations that challenged the old structures of Chilean society.

On Wednesday, October 5th, in Bolívar Hall in London, 25 people attended the screening of “People's Power” (“El poder popular”) the third part of “The Battle of Chile” (“La batalla de Chile”), by Patricio Guzmán. This film was produced in 1979, some years after the first two parts of “The Battle of Chile” had already become a “classic” on the development and defeat of the Chilean Revolution and the Allende government.

This film focuses on “People’s Power”, i.e. the formation of grassroots movements and organisations that challenged the old structure of Chilean society in an attempt to revolutionise the whole system. Workers, peasants and youth organised first to break the resistance of the bosses and then moved on to use People’s Power in a more creative way, as the embryo of a new society. Several forms of People’s Power and the related problems are shown in the film alongside the development of the political situation on a national scale.

People’s Power stops the counter-revolution

First of all, the workers tried to defend their jobs, the economy of their country, their government and the revolution itself, from the first vicious lockout organised by the bosses of the trucking industry. The whole Chilean transport system was paralysed from October 11th, 1972, causing huge disruption to the economy. The counter-revolutionary attack was initially launched by the rightist National Party and the confederation of trucking companies, but one by one all the reactionary parties (including the Christian Democrats) and middle-class associations of the country fell into line in backing the seditious strike. In some factories, the bosses’ sabotage went to the point that the owners, managers and technicians abandoned the plants.

In this context, the workers started to fight back. A parallel transport system was organised from below to transport the workers and the raw materials and get them to the factories. Trucks owned by the nationalised factories became improvised buses for the workers. Abandoned factories were reorganised under workers’ control and with the aid of those few technicians, engineers etc., who kept on working (in some cases being “shared” by several companies). In the film we can see how the workers did not really miss their bosses very much:

“We are fine, now that our bosses have abandoned us, we go forward. They left and left the factory to us. So, we have continued to work here normally, without any problem. […] In spite of everything, now we are happier, it's much better, and hopefully I will be able to shake the hand of my comrade Allende.”

In this way the appeal against the strike launched by the government was successful and the right wing was temporarily defeated.

Another field where People’s Power was effectively used was in the war against hoarding. The US blockade spurred hoarding by shopkeepers, middlemen, speculators etc., who exploited to their advantage the dramatic shortage of supplies. The government issued strict laws to punish the hoarders and to establish central control on stocks and supplies, but this would have remained on paper without mass support and participation. Some factories, through their trade union organisations, started to sell their products directly to the working-class neighbourhoods and community warehouses (the “people’s warehouses” set up in 1973 as consumer co-operatives to bypass the profiteers). The film makers comment: “Other factories send pickets of workers to open the closed stores. These workers play the role of inspectors at the service of the government.” We clearly had the beginnings of dual power: the official power of the bourgeois state and the capitalists, and “People’s Power”, i.e. the power of the working class and the revolutionary peasantry.

The vital need to oppose hoarding and violent terrorist attacks by CIA-backed Fascists compelled the organs of People’s Power to organise vigilante committees and armed detachments, even though the central government would always stubbornly refuse to arm the people – an approach that was to prove fatal in September 1973.

The good results of the enterprises belonging to the “social sector” (nationalised and under workers’ control) eventually frustrated the counter-revolutionary plot and convinced the Christian Democracy to temporarily reject the more extremist tactics, trying to reach a deal with Allende and water down the political line of the government. In order to get the support of the Christian Democrats, Allende incorporated the Commanders-in-Chief of the Armed Forces into a new cabinet that combined top military officers (like General Carlos Prats, who would be assassinated by Pinochet’s agents in 1974) with civilians. The workers interviewed in the movie gave a generally favourable response to this change. Many of the same workers who were striving to create People’s Power still had illusions that the army could be reliably used to smash the counter-revolution – this demonstrates the contradictory character of the movement. The following dialogue between the interviewer and a factory worker shows a typical point of view:

“I’ve never liked the military in the government, for the simple reason that democratic systems are alien to the military.” – “Why then has comrade Allende used the military?” – “I imagine that the situation was too serious and so it was necessary because of temporary circumstances, nothing more – to have the authority to bring order, but it can’t be permanent, it has to be for a short time…”

This attempt would be tragically revealed as a blind alley a few months later, but it did not prevent People’s Power from continuing to develop parallel to the suicidal constitutional path. This alarmed the more moderate parties on the Left, afraid of the spontaneous activity of the masses, almost as much as the ruling class itself.

Workers and peasants try to reorganise society

The Industrial Belts (Cordones Industriales), especially Cordón Cerrillos, constituted the most advanced example. They were genuine forms of workers’ democracy: co-ordinating committees of organised workers that took control of their workplaces. The similarities between these bodies of workers’ power and the original Russian soviets (of the pre-Stalin era) are striking. Formed at the end of the October conflict, the Cerrillos Industrial Belt comprised 250 businesses from the Southern part of Santiago.

People’s Power also became a means of forming a united front between the working class and the peasantry. The documentary shows how the peasants in the village of Maipú relied on support by detachments of workers from the Industrial Belts to occupy and expropriate estates owned by big landlords and reorganise production in a co-operative manner. In the same scene, we can witness a conflict between the spontaneous struggle of the masses and the limitations of the “legal path”, represented by the pernicious role of the state bureaucracy in charge of “organising” (in fact, restraining) the land reform. The judiciary placed one thousand legal obstacles in the way of the peasants in struggle, trying in different ways to hand the estates back to their “legitimate” owners, and the government and its officers did not intervene.

The experience of workers’ control under the most difficult siege conditions sparked proletarian creativity applied to the daily problems of production. In the plants, political and economic discussion covered all aspects of the struggle. In the film we could see how the most advanced layers of the working class recognised the basic contradiction of dual power: nationalised companies under workers’ control could not survive for a prolonged period alongside a state that preserved its capitalist character and an economic system still dominated to a large extent by private profit. The demand raised in the workers’ meetings is openly for the establishment of a collective economy democratically planned from below: in other words, a genuine transition to socialism.

The word “socialism” sounds much more concrete and practical if you associate it with the images of the organised workers autonomously managing production, distribution and public order. This is certainly a very precious video document on what a revolution truly looks like. Watching this movie, you can’t help thinking that just within the official shell of any capitalist society (not only Chile in the Seventies, but also every capitalist country in our times) lies a sort of dormant energy that is only waiting to be unleashed. Repressed and forcibly prevented from surfacing in “normal” times, it is a new order maturing “within the womb of the old society”, as Marx said, that emerges in a revolutionary conjuncture.

What the Chilean activists and the film itself call “People’sPower” are the elements of a new order based on workers’ democracy and control, mass participation based on political awareness and class consciousness, collective ownership of the means of production, reorganisation of the economy on the basis of needs instead of profit. After all, having – more or less consciously– unleashed this energy is the main sin that Salvador Allende and tens of thousands of Chilean leftists and revolutionaries paid for with their lives or with years of prison, torture, humiliation or exile. But, in so doing, the bourgeoisie is only sweeping its own dirt under the carpet.

Lessons for today

A Question & Answer session followed the screening, with the participation of comrade Sara De Witt and other ex Chilean political prisoners.

There were some questions on the reforms implemented by Salvador Allende and the level of support he enjoyed. While it is clear that in those few years and under such terrible conditions, and as it was confined within the limits of capitalism, the revolution could not really obtain much, Sara explained how the foundations for very radical changes were actually in place and this triggered a wave of enthusiasm especially among the most exploited layers of society, that reflected itself in a steady increase of electoral support for Unidad Popular. At the same time, Chilean society was extremely polarised, which is what we have to expect in any revolutionary situation, and the Right also did have some base of support.

There was a question asking why the so-called “socialist bloc” could not help Chile in establishing socialism. The author of this report answered that question, expressing the opinion that, even if revolutions cannot be simply “imported”, the opportunism and bureaucratisation of the leaderships of both the USSR and the People’s Republic of China had had a very negative role in the whole process. Realpolitik and the acceptance of the “Monroe doctrine” that identified Latin America as the backyard of the White House always determined the actions of both Moscow and Beijing. Also the Cuban revolution was anything but the result of a conscious support by Khrushchev. The leaders of the Communist Party of Chile, with strong links to the Kremlin, had always sided with the most moderate wing of the movement, warning against any kind of revolutionary action by the masses. China even went to the extent of establishing very friendly diplomatic relations with Pinochet, on the basis that the Chinese leaders tended to always do the opposite of what the Soviet leaders did (the USSR had at least broken all diplomatic relations with Chile after the coup).

A very young member of the audience asked a question about the role of teachers in those years and what the government did for young children. Sara replied that the Allende government was very active in improving the conditions of schools, extending and improving education for poor children, which motivated many teachers in getting more involved in the struggle and siding with the revolution.

Another question was about the opinion of the Chileans today about what happened in those months of turmoil. Different opinions were expressed about the changes that have taken place in Chilean society since 1973. Some said that society has become much more affected by consumerism and there is a lack of strong ideals, but Sara underlined the fact that after such a tragic defeat you can only expect that people want to forget for some time. The same has happened in any other country after the workers have been defeated in an important struggle, but it never prevented the new generation from starting again from where their parents were forced to stop.

Comparisons were also drawn, once again, with the current situation in Venezuela – this was in fact the reason why Hands Off Venezuela promoted this film screening series! “People’s Power” is strong in Venezuela too and very similar processes are unfolding in that country. “Crear / crear / poder popular” is a slogan as relevant now as it was in 1972-73!

Join / affiliate to the campaign!

Make a donation!

Hands Off Venezuela's financial resources are limited so we rely on our supporters around the world.  Please make a donation of any size towards building the campaign