Chile: what was the October Rebellion, and what will come of it? We need a working-class Marxist tendency!

The remarkable protest movement last October represents a qualitative leap from the other mass movements and protests that for more than a decade have marked the landscape of post-dictatorial Chile. From a global perspective, it was a turning point in the context of the world crisis of capitalism. It was a truly insurrectional mass uprising that, from Friday 18 October to the end of November, involved between five and six million active participants.

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Several months after the uprising began, “Fuera Piñera” (Out With Piñera) continues to be one of the most popular Chilean slogans. It expresses the overall mood regarding the government of the pro-business president Sebastián Piñera. But the popular rejection of all institutions – given the exposure of corruption in the Carabineros (national police) and the Army, the Church, and Congress – is nothing new.

The people have demonstrated their discontent in various political struggles: the 2006-2011 student movement, regional and environmental revolts, teachers’ strikes; “Feminist May” and other mobilisations of women; marches for No More AFP (Administradoras de Fondos de Pensiones, the privatised pension system in existence since 1980); protests against the privatisation of natural resources amidst the severe and ongoing drought; resistance to continuous state repression in the Wallmapu (ancestral Mapuche territory); strikes by subcontractors in mining, forestry, salmon farms, and ports; and labour disputes in retail, call centres and elsewhere.

Red October

The spark lit by highschool students in response to October’s proposed metro fare hike in Santiago ignited a spirit of popular solidarity: at that point, all struggles converged. You can hear the demands in the streets and see them as graffiti on city walls all over the country. The cry: “It’s not 30 pesos, it’s 30 years!” is a protest against the entire political spectrum that managed the limited democratic transition in 1989. This transition ensured the impunity and continuity of the capitalist system, defended by the dictatorial constitution of 1980. Among the main demands of the mass movement are education, pensions, equality, wages, and full employment.
Chile far strike main Image public domainOctober 2019 showed the immense power of the masses, but also the need for revolutionary leadership / Image: public domain

After a week, the government’s state of emergency and curfew measures were put down by the fighting spirit of the masses on the streets. The masses won despite the violence exerted by the state. The movement still has extraordinary strength and overwhelming support, as first made evident in the national call for “the largest march in Chile” on 25 October.

The general strike of 12 November, called by the Union Bloc of the Democratic Unity Roundtable, was the most effective work stoppage since 1990. The role of the working class as the protagonist in the struggle set off the alarm bells of the ruling class, precipitating in 72 hours an agreement among the parties that represent the regime in crisis.

The clamour by the masses for a Constituent Assembly represents the aspiration for fundamental social change and a repudiation of the entire existing regime. Even the right-wing parties, in danger of being swept away by the uprising, were forced to forge an agreement with the opposition, with the aim of defusing the movement. Sad to say, the Socialist Party and the Broad Front (a popular coalition that came together as a product of years of student protest) lent their support: hence the so-called “agreement for peace and the new constitution.” The regime was on the ropes, overwhelmed by the masses in the street. The leaders of the parliamentary left saved it on the basis of the call for a constitutional process that did not go beyond the limits of bourgeois parliamentarism.

On 11 May 1983, when the Pinochet dictatorship was still in power, the Confederation of Copper Workers (CTC) called for the first strike in 10 years. It set off a process of political radicalisation and massive mobilisation against the brutal regime. The ensuing days of protests were insurrectionary. Several years later, however, the transition to parliamentary democracy after Pinochet stepped down in 1989 was the product of an agreement from above to avoid insurrection from below. And this arrangement was ushered in by the Coalition of Parties for Democracy. The lesson to be learned from this is that yet another gesture at the voting booth is no guarantee of a radical transformation. Within the limits of the capitalist system, such a transformation is not possible.

30 years of “democratic transition,” founded on impunity for the crimes of the dictatorship and the continuation of the capitalist economic system, have already passed. And even the recent 15N agreement (for the 2020 constitutional plebiscite, so named because it was signed on 15 November 2019) seeks to channel democratic aspirations and better quality of life within an institutional framework mandated by Congress. This agreement will not affect the privileges of the capitalist class, nor does it purport to change the privatised pension system or private enterprise in healthcare or education. The agreement does not mention justice for human rights violations, nor does it require the release of the more than 2,000 political prisoners currently in custody.

The Chilean business oligarchy are an ignorant and backward ruling class. Unable to develop the economy by their own means, and weak in the face of the immense working class and the poor, they must submit to imperialist domination. Democratic demands collide with the economic demands of capitalism in crisis, which imposes the predatory exploitation of natural resources and human labour. Democratic guarantees to sustain all that is precious for the development of human society, such as health, housing, education, and pensions, will not come through signed laws on paper. Rather, they are determined by the balance of forces between the classes in dispute. A new constitution under the terms proposed by the current regime is a hoax. A new constitution that really serves the interests of the oppressed majority will be possible only when the working class overthrows the rotten bourgeois regime and takes power, political and economic, into its own hands. Only by expropriating the multinationals can their resources be democratically controlled and placed at the service of the majority.

The Democratic Unity Roundtable

The Democratic Unity Roundtable’s role in opposition to the government became more and more vague over time. The organisation never seriously considered taking up the most popular demand of the protests: “Out With Piñera.” The 8 March Feminist Coordinating Committee and the High School Student Assembly denounced the conciliatory role adopted by some leaders of the Union Bloc of the Democratic Unity Roundtable with respect to a government that literally declared war on the workers and the poor. Neither the repression nor the false concessions managed to quell the tremendous revolution that has been unleashed in Chile. But make no mistake: the union leadership’s conciliatory and collaborationist approach to the bosses as well as parliamentary chicanery by leftist politicians gave a vital respite to the regime in crisis.

The economy was in a severe recession already when the pandemic precipitated the current capitalist world crisis. The plebiscite for a new constitution has been postponed until October 2020. Meanwhile, there are still street confrontations and real protests at hunger in various parts of the country, highlighting crudely what the Chilean awakening denounced: the vulnerability of large sectors of the population, inequality, the precariousness of public health, inadequate pensions and wages, and casualisation and unemployment. The labour decrees and sanitary measures are a quarantine tailored to suit the right wing and the employers, supervised by the military on the streets.

With no “peace” or “new constitution” in sight, the 15N agreement is stripped of its raison d’etre. Instead, it serves its latent purpose: supporting the continued rule of the regime and all its political parties.

Recently, the government forged a new “National Agreement,” this time under the guise of the health crisis. In any case, this situation is not new. This policy of agreements and parliamentary concoctions has been the norm for the last 30 years.

The extraordinary thing about the Chilean awakening is the energy of young people, showing beyond all doubt that another reality is possible. What is new is the combativeness of the masses and the forms of spontaneous self-organisation on display in the general strike, in the councils and assemblies, in the Primera Linea (self-defence organisations during the protests) and the medics’ brigades. These embryonic forms of dual power will likely continue to confront the official power of the bourgeois state and its institutions, although perhaps under another name.

In addition to longtime leftist groups who had fought against the dictatorship, new sectors of the masses, young and not so young, have taken centre stage in the working-class neighbourhoods of Santiago and the provinces. Of particular importance is the women's movement, which broke all records in the convocation of 8 March. For years, the movement has denounced male violence and the capitalist state and has demanded social rights.

The uprising showed immense strength, but there was a limit to what it could do. Mass demonstrations are essential to build the self-confidence of the people. But they are not enough to defeat the state apparatus, the mass media of the bourgeoisie, and the damage caused by conciliatory leaders on the left.

The Democratic Unity Roundtable, responding to grassroots pressure, was for a time virtually able to give a unified direction from above. But it lacked real mechanisms of internal direct democracy. It was a gathering of organisational representatives from above, not a genuine assembly of elected delegates in factories, workplaces, neighbourhoods and on the barricades. Because of this, the Roundtable was not able to honour fully the combative spirit and the pressing demands of the working class, such as the departure of Piñera.

In the absence of a clear perspective on how to proceed, general strikes, which are partial measures and limited in duration, inevitably led to fatigue. Limits were then set by union leaders and the reformist left. Or put another way, the true limit was the absence of revolutionary working-class leadership.

For workers’ power

Chile protest ES 12 Image fair useA socialist Chile within a Socialist Federation of Latin America would be a powerful boost for a World Socialist Federation / Image: fair use

As demonstrated on 12 November, the working class has the ability to paralyse the country and bring the government of the bosses to heel. The agent of the necessary revolutionary transformation is the working class.

In response to the economic crisis, the government has put state intervention plans on the agenda. In particular, the LATAM Airlines bankruptcy has elicited proposals from business representatives for the rescue of “strategic” companies. These proposals reveal the deep hypocrisy of capitalism, which socialises losses but privatises profits. At the same time, the Social Convergence (progressive) party has called for state intervention to prevent layoffs. And the Communist Party of Chile has suggested creating a fund for the rescue of essential companies, with a letter addressed to “Mr. President.” The socialist nature of these calls is debatable. The important point is to expropriate the fundamental sectors of the economy without compensation and put them under workers' control, not to rescue private enterprise.

Although palliative measures that ease unemployment and hunger may in principle benefit the working class, they will be paid for with taxes and public debt. Ultimately, this money ends up in the hands of the banks: the owners of the means of production. These methods ultimately save capitalism and prevent a social explosion. No decree or parliamentary trick can prevent the loss of jobs. Only through common ownership of the means of production can we create a socialist economic plan. Only by expropriating Chilean property owners can all our demands be met.

The key will be to mobilise and organise the millions of people who have come out to fight. Demands can converge into a unified programme:

  • Public health and education, free of charge and available to all.
  • 40-hour working week.
  • Minimum salary of 700,000 pesos a month.
  • Replacement of the AFP by a pension system under public administration.
  • Nationalisation of copper, water, lithium, and marine resources.
  • Expulsion of foreign forestry companies.
  • An end to the militarisation of the Wallmapu.
  • An end to the impunity of state institutions such as the Carabineros.

These demands are supported by the vast majority of Chileans.

Across the world, the bourgeoisie plan to save capitalism by making workers pay for the crisis. We are witnessing a historical stage of acute confrontation between the classes. During Latin America’s Red October, we saw the emergence of fighting groups rooted in the working class and the oppressed; and potential organs of dual power, as in Ecuador and Chile. We saw massive protests in Haiti, Puerto Rico, Honduras, and Colombia.

In Chile, the working people defied repressive forces, overcoming the state of emergency and curfew. But no permanent regional or national mass movement came of it. A Marxist political tendency would deepen the reach of the spontaneous groupings that emerged during Red October. This tendency would fight inside and outside the unions to generalise the most advanced experiences of the working class. Building such a movement is the task of the International Marxist Tendency, which has a presence in more than 40 countries. We fight for the full development of the intelligence and creative force of the working class.

For Marxists, it is key to understand to what extent and by which means the working class may place itself at the forefront of the movement. The task is to develop the workers’ own organisations of power to overthrow the government of bosses and replace it with a government of workers. Marxists must open a dialogue with the rank-and-file of leftist parties, including the Socialist Party, the Communist Party of Chile, and the Broad Front. We can present a revolutionary alternative for all those people who are disappointed in these organisations.

The capitalist system faces the most serious crisis in its history. Private property and national borders are barriers to solving the fundamental problems of humanity. The present global pandemic bears this out one more time. The owners of Chile cannot do anything other than defend their capitalist interests. It is time for the workers to defend our interests too. The fundamental levers of the economy must be placed under the control of the workers and the people. A socialist transformation of the economy and society, democratically led by the working class, will direct production to the benefit of the people's needs, and not for the profits of a minority that threatens the existence of humanity and the planet.

A revolutionary victory in Chile, in the current context of upheaval at the international level, would open the floodgates to a wave that would sweep away rotten capitalist regimes across the continent and beyond. We are fighting for a socialist Chile within the framework of a Socialist Federation of Latin America, which would be a powerful boost for a World Socialist Federation.

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