Nick Wrack, a member of the Socialist Platform in Left Unity, spoke to Solidarity about the lessons of the Chilean coup for socialists today.
Solidarity: On the left in Britain now a lot of people are looking to the Syriza majority as their political model. In the majority of Syriza, not in the left-wing minority, the Popular Unity government in Chile in the early 1970s is held up as a model. What light is shed on these models by looking back at what happened in Chile 40 years ago?
Nick Wrack: I can’t comment directly on the situation in Syriza, but the lessons of Chile are of enormous importance still. The coup demonstrated that the ruling class will never give up its power and privilege unless it is completely defeated. It will resort to violence, if it has to, to prevent change.
Everything we’ve got, the right to vote, the right to form trade unions, the right to assemble, has been forced from the ruling class, not given freely. When those rights come into conflict with their “right” to exploit and to make profits, then they will attempt to do away with the democratic gains of the past.
Anybody that wants to confront capitalism and bring about socialist change has to understand that the state in capitalist society is there to protect the capitalist class and the rule of capital. One of the major problems with the Chilean Popular Unity government was that, while it implemented big reforms, it didn’t understand the need to carry change through to the end.
The leading participants in the Popular Unity government used the participation in the government of small parties that were opposed to fundamental change to hold back the movement. And I think the leaderships of the Socialist Party and the Communist Party, too, didn’t really want that fundamental change to be carried through, or at least didn’t understand what was necessary to achieve it.
Solidarity: Often people reply: but that’s Chile, that’s Latin America, where there are often coups. This is Britain. It is more democratic. There has never been a military coup here. The same considerations don’t apply.
NW: I’m not suggesting that we’re on the verge of a military coup in Britain at the moment. But wherever you are, the same rules apply. Chile had a long parliamentary history, and not the same history of military dictatorships as other Latin American countries. The argument was used in Chile that Chile was different, and yet the Chilean ruling class, with the backing of the CIA and American imperialism, organised that coup.
There are differences. The working class is stronger, and we do have long-established democratic traditions in Britain that will be difficult to destroy. On the other hand, consciousness about socialist change and how to bring it about has fallen back very far. Even basic ideas about socialism are not as well-understood today.
If and when the working class is in a position to fundamentally confront capitalism, there will be sections of the ruling class trying to undermine that through all sorts of methods — constitutional obstruction, economic destabilisation, sabotage, agents provocateurs... If the process looks likely to be successful, then certainly consideration would be given to whether they could get away with a coup or coup-type reaction.
The answer is twofold: to make sure that you have a clear programme and a clear understanding about the state, and to build the maximum working-class support for the process of change, so that the ruling class understand that they have no chance of preventing it.
Any government seeking to represent the working class and push through fundamental change would have to do what Allende failed to do — dismantle the old institutions of the state, the institutions which in the end were used against Allende. It would have to dismantle the standing army, remove the judges, remove the top civil servants, and inaugurate a proper democracy based on election and recallability of all officials.
Solidarity: Aren’t there also things in British history we can point to? We know now that in the 1970s, under the Labour government, “fairly senior officers” were discussing the possibility of a coup. We know that in a political system similar to Britain’s, in Australia in 1975, a Labor government was sacked by the Governor-General as the representative of the Queen. The use of the permanent unelected state machine to get rid of reforming governments is not something that happens only in Latin America.
NW: Yes. The fundamental points apply no matter how deep the roots of democracy in the country. There are elements in the British state who have already considered what they might do if a reforming government came to power in Britain and challenged the power of capital.
Solidarity: Another response is to say yes, but all this is so far away from where we are now, politically, that talking about it is an unnecessary raising of remote future problems. What we must do now is organise for a limited left-reformist policy which will at least bring some relief. We can deal with all these problems much later.
NW: I don’t agree with that response at all. We are a long way from confronting a Chile-type situation in Britain, but we may be much closer to it in Greece. It’s impossible to say how the situation in Greece will develop, but when we have 50% of the riot police voting for Golden Dawn, and the relatively recent history of the military regime in Greece from 1967 to 1974, it shows that these issues are nearer than people might think.
And anyway, these lessons are not something that can be put to one side until we are on the eve of the socialist transformation of society. They need to be built into the fibre and fabric of the movement, so that everyone understands what the role of the armed forces, the judiciary, the police, the top civil servants, the secret security forces, is.
The state is not neutral in the class struggle. No workers’ government or movement to change society can use that state. The state is there to protect capitalism. A new society would need a new form of state.
Solidarity: What relevance do these historical lessons have to the debate today in Left Unity about its political platform?
NW: I wouldn’t want to drag Chile in by the hair, and construct a forced relevance; but the platform we have drafted makes clear that socialism can’t be evolutionary; that it has to be a fundamental breach with capitalism; that the present-day state can’t be utilised to implement socialism; that coalitions with representatives of the capitalist class should be completely opposed, because those capitalist allies become a worm in the workers’ movement to hold back the struggle, as happened in the Popular Unity government in 1970-3.
The leadership, both Allende and the CP, constantly compromised with the Christian Democracy, and ended up bringing leaders of the armed forces into the cabinet.
We need to build a mass party that wins the support of the majority of people — that is, the working class — and has a clear programme for complete change. We have to start with that attitude from the beginning and win the debates.
It may be difficult to persuade people who say “this is different”, or “that was a long time ago”, or “that won’t happen here”, but we have to warn people.
If you watch The Battle for Chile, a fantastic film by Patricio Guzman, he has interviews with young women workers who have a better understanding of the state than their leaders had.
They were demanding arms, and saying that they needed to defend themselves and their communities and their workplaces, but the established state forces had arms and they hadn’t.