Allende after a conciliatory news conference.
The last real choice between these two alternatives had come in the aftermath of the "bosses' strike" of October 1972. (2) The workers at that time had spontaneously taken over their closed factories in order to keep the economy going. In so doing, they had rescued Allende from the first concerted effort to overthrow him. The means they had used, i.e., the factory takeovers, were of course illegal, but it was the bourgeoisie that had broken the rules first by going outside established channels to accomplish an essentially political objective. Allende at that point had the option of declaring the factory takeovers a fait accompli and accepting the shift of the political struggle to a new plane involving the rapid extension of organs of popular self-rule, all of which he could have justified by arguing that the enterprise owners had themselves chosen to abdicate their economic responsibilities. He chose, however, the opposite course. Yielding to the sanctimonious outrage of the bourgeoisie, he agreed to restore the seized properties in return for what amounted to a truce, to be enforced by military representation in the Cabinet, for the remainder of the period up until the March 1973 congressional elections.
If there was any single act which interrupted the workers' forward movement, that was it. And for what? Even with a major electoral gain by Allende's Popular Unity (UP) coalition, no serious observer could expect it to win the 50+% that would have significantly improved its legal position. This was not because its programs were anti-popular, but rather for two other reasons. First, foreign and domestic reaction had effectively counteracted many of the advances in people's immediate living conditions, and second, there was still a sizeable unorganized sector of the working class which believed the promises of Moderate opposition parties (especially the Christian Democrats) to give them the same social benefits that the Left was trying to provide.
What the workers' alternative represented was not only the direct realization of measures which were beyond the reach of the government, but also a tangible demonstration to the unorganized of the basis on which they themselves could run their affairs. In THE BATTLE OF CHILE, we see some of the continuing examples of such popular control, in both factories and neighborhoods, (3) but its scope was not as great as it would have been without Allende's retreat.
Of course, no one can say for sure whether an unchecked workers' advance in November could have withstood a right-wing counterattack. What is certain, however, is that the military was not yet prepared, at that stage, to carry out a successful coup. (This is admitted even by a strong defender of Allende's concessions.)(4) Allende evidently hoped that a head-on clash could be postponed indefinitely. This made it impossible for him to recognize, or perhaps even to consider, that the risk level for the working class might be lower at that moment than at a later date. What ended up happening was that the Right got itself a grace period. The popular forces acted with deliberate restraint during the electoral campaign. And the bourgeoisie, disappointed by the voting results — which brought gains for Popular Unity and ended any hope for impeaching Allende — had a chance to make a fresh start after March in its insurrectionary project.
The rest of the story is unfolded for us on the screen. The opposed forces are no longer well-matched, but this is not immediately apparent. The Left from the outset has far outstripped the Right in its numbers of active supporters, and this politicized mass remains visually impressive right up to the end. At first, it can still win some real victories against right-wing obstruction. Mass demonstrations thus succeed in discrediting the impeachment campaign against Allende's ministers and also in isolating the basically political strike that occurred at one of the nationalized copper mines. But once the Armed Forces move into action (they never really retreat after June 29), the game is essentially up. The disintegration of the Left proceeds apace, being in fact speeded up rather than reversed by the awareness of impending disaster.
For the organized workers, the stakes have been raised too high to permit any turning back, and we watch several of them as they say that they would sooner die than give up their gains. For Allende, on the other hand, the stranglehold of the Right grows so tight that he accepts without a word of protest the violent intimidation campaign which the military carries out against these same workers in their factories. The workers criticize the government for its weaknesses. The Communist union leader (though not identified as such) suggests that they don't understand the complexity of the issues. Only at a ceremonial level can the two sectors act in concert. On September 4 they join forces for the biggest demonstration yet. On September 11 comes the coup.
In the debate on Chile, which has permeated the Left worldwide since 1973, each side has drawn sustenance from what happened in those final months. In an immediate sense, both sides are right. It is undoubtedly true, as the Euro-communists say, that Allende, for all his moderation, ended up defying the bourgeoisie by refusing to abandon the Left's program entirely. But it is also true, as their left-wing critics argue, that Allende's hope of avoiding repression merely by respecting legal norms was without foundation.
As a document, THE BATTLE OF CHILE provides materials for both sides of this argument. The only pertinent omission it might be charged with is its failure to show the full extent to which the official Left ended up demoralizing its militant base. (During the final weeks, for example, Allende publicly denounced rank-and-file sailors who had been organizing to defend his government against their pro-coup officers.) By not accentuating this level of breakdown on the Left, the film rescues the UP leadership from at least the bitterest charges that might be made against it. On the other hand, though, any such possible benefit to the "moderate" position is more than counterbalanced by the positive view the film gives us of the class-conscious workers.
It is their words and actions that account for the film's tremendous emotional impact. THE BATTLE OF CHILE thus remains before all else a film of the people. As such, it shows us some of the hidden human potential that emerges under crisis conditions, and in so doing, it provides support and inspiration for the more radical approach.
By not taking an explicit position in the Left's debate, the film will remain accessible to all sectors of the Left in the future. By abstaining from showing us the more disgraceful moments of the UP's debacle, it encourages us to cast any criticism of the UP leadership in terms of specific errors of approach and strategy rather than in terms of facile epithets of betrayal. But by showing the insufficiently tapped militance of the Chilean workers, it gives us some sense of the depth of the UP's missed opportunity. Revolution, after all, depends above all upon the consciousness and commitment of the oppressed masses. Where the UP leaders lacked faith in what this could achieve, THE BATTLE OF CHILE offers us a gripping and compelling corrective.