When I heard that Salvador Allende won the Chilean presidential elections in September 1970 and sought to bring his country to socialism by peaceful means, I decided to do my doctoral dissertation on Chile. In May 1972, I went to take a crash course in Spanish in Cuernavaca in the Mexican state of Morelos, the birthplace of the legendary peasant leader Emiliano Zapata whose life had been made into a movie starring Marlon Brando that I had seen and liked as a teenager. After three weeks, I felt that the course had substantially improved the rudimentary Spanish I had from high school in the Philippines. So, I flew to Santiago, arriving in the capital in the midst of the Chilean winter, greeted by tear gas and skirmishes of opposing political groups in the aftermath of a demonstration. Hauling two suitcases, I made it with great difficulty from the bus depot to the historic Hotel Claridge, a few blocks from La Moneda, the presidential palace.
Two expectations were immediately dashed when I arrived in Santiago. The first was that I could get by with my “Mexican-Filipino” Spanish. This could only be remedied through daily conversations with Chileans, and I soon learned how to swallow consonants at the end of a word, as in mao o meno instead of mas o menos.
The second was that the topic for my dissertation, leftist organizing in the callampas, or shantytowns, was worth pursuing. A few weeks in Santiago disabused me of the impression of a revolutionary momentum that I had gathered reading about events in Chile in left-wing publications in the United States. People on the left were constantly being mobilized for marches and rallies in the center of Santiago, and increasingly, the reason for this was to counter the demonstrations mounted by the right. My friends brought me to these events, where there were an increasing number of skirmishes with right-wing thugs.
The Revolution on the Defensive
I noticed a certain defensiveness among participants in these mobilizations and a reluctance to be caught alone when leaving them, for fear of being harassed or worse by roaming bands of rightists. The revolution, it dawned on me, was on the defensive, and the right was beginning to take command of the streets. Twice I was nearly beaten up because I made the stupid mistake of observing right-wing demonstrations with El Siglo, the Communist Party newspaper, tucked prominently under my arm. Stopped by some Christian Democratic youth partisans, I said I was a Princeton University graduate student doing research on Chilean politics. They sneered and told me I was one of Allende’s “thugs” imported from Cuba. I guess they thought I was being provocative, with El Siglo tucked under my arm. Thankfully, the sudden arrival of a Mexican friend saved me from a beating. On the other occasion, my fleet feet did the job.
When I looked at the faces of the predominantly white right-wing crowds, many of them blond-haired, I imagined the same enraged faces at the fascist and Nazi demonstrations that took control of the streets in Italy and Germany. These were people who looked with disdain at what they called the rotos, or “broken ones,” that filled the left-wing demonstrations, people who were darker, many of them clearly of indigenous extraction.
I had wanted to do a doctoral thesis that would make some contribution to activist organizing in revolutionary times. This had been overtaken by events, and I made the painful decision to do, instead, a thesis aimed at gaining an understanding of the rise of a counterrevolution, something that would be of greater relevance for progressive analysts and organizers—but also something that would be difficult owing to rightists’ suspicion of what an Asian interviewer, allegedly from an American Ivy League university, was up to.
Over the next few months, I interviewed both people on the right and partisans of the left. Some respondents on the right saw Allende and the Unidad Popular (UP) as a “minority government” out to impose itself on the majority through “questionable” constitutional measures. Others saw the “constitutional road to socialism” as simply a cover for a plot to impose a “Stalinist dictatorship.” Still others saw the appeal to the middle class as “pure demagoguery” meant to lull the middle class into complacency as the left set about to “destroy democracy.” Most of the right-wingers I interviewed were Christian Democrats, who saw former Christian Democrats who had joined the UP and even such true-blue Christian Democrats as Radomiro Tomic, Allende’s rival in the 1970 elections, as “people who had been fooled by the Communists.” Practically all had become entrenched in their attitude of great suspicion, disdain, or hostility to the left.
Interviews with people on the left brought up a uniform response: that the middle classes were being misled and manipulated by the right wing to believe that their class interests were with the rich rather than with the working class. Most believed in the Unidad Popular’s formula for revolution–that a broad alliance between working class, middle class, and constitutionally oriented sectors of the upper class would be the social engine of revolutionary transformation. There was a discounting of the independent dynamic of the middle sectors, a view of them as a passive mass that would respond to their “real” class interests, which lay in an alliance with the working class.
Reality Check in Valdivia
The myopia of this view was underlined by a confrontation with a small farmer, or pequeno agricultor, in southern Chile. I went to soggy Valdivia in the far south of Chile with an American friend, the late historian Bill Blum who was later to become an expert in U.S. intervention, to look up a Christian Democratic farmer that had been recommended by a fellow graduate student at the Princeton sociology department. After a couple of weeks of intensive interviewing and documentary research in Santiago, I thought I would relax a bit and enjoy the famed Chilean hospitality. We were warmly received by the farmer and his family, which included a son and two daughters. A goat was slaughtered for us, and we sat down to a hearty dinner on our first night. Then our host started cursing Allende, calling him simply a tool for the Communist Party to “impose its dictatorship on Chile.” The Socialist Party of Allende was no better than the Communists, and the Izquierda Cristiana, composed of former Christian Democrats that had joined the Unidad Popular, were “traitors.” My friend and I kept our politics to ourselves and tried to guide the discussion to more innocuous topics. I wanted to interview him on his views, I said, but we could do that after dinner. He said fine, but after a few minutes, he again began his anti-leftist tirade.
The next day at breakfast, lunch, and dinner was more of the same hospitality punctuated by lengthy invectives against “communists who will take away my property and give them to the rotos.” Finally, at dinner on our second day, I could no longer tolerate his litany of “crimes of the left” and said I actually thought Allende was fighting for social justice and the land reform he was trying to push would actually benefit medium farmers like him and would negatively impact only the big landholders.
Chileans, I had been told, could be really friendly and hospitable until they smelled your politics, after which you either became a really close friend or you became an outcast. My friend and I became outcasts, and our not being asked to breakfast the next day was a clear sign that Bill and I had overstayed our welcome. This was unfortunate, not least owing to the fact that we were on friendly terms with the farmer’s two daughters.
This experience brought home to me how ghettoized Chile’s classes were, how class formed such gulfs between the elite, the middle class, and the workers. Chile’s roughly equal electoral division between the National Party, the Christian Democratic Party, and the Unidad Popular reflected class solidarities that were difficult to bridge. My experience in Valdivia confirmed my worst fear, that is, that the Unidad Popular had lost the middle classes and that this did not stem so much from what its policies actually were than from deep-seated fears that the gains of workers and the lower classes would only come at their expense.
The danger of an inflamed middle class that saw its status and interests threatened from below, pushing it to a counterrevolutionary position was confirmed as I read up on the events leading up to Mussolini’s taking of power in Italy and Hitler’s ascent to power during the Weimer Republic in Germany.
This brings up the question of what to expect from the middle class in conditions of severe class conflict. Among both liberals and progressives at that time, it was common to portray the middle class as an ally of the working class and the lower classes generally and to consider that it was by and large a force for democratization. But Chile showed that, contrary to this assumption, the middle classes are not necessarily forces for democratization in developing countries. In fact, when the poorer classes are being mobilized with a revolutionary agenda, the middle classes can become a mass base for counterrevolution, as in Germany and Italy in the 1920s when the middle class provided the foot soldiers of the fascist movements.
It was a phenomenon that I was again to encounter 40 years later, when I had a front row seat to middle-class mobilizations against the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra in Thailand. Yingluck was a stand-in for her brother Thaksin, who had revolutionized Thai politics by mobilizing the rural poor. Supported by the middle class and the Thai elite, the military seized power in Thailand in 2014, ushering in a decade of military rule.
Seymour Martin Lipset famously argued that the middle class was a force for democratization in the developing world. After observing counterrevolutionary movements against the lower classes in Chile and Thailand, I see instead a Janus-faced class: a force for democracy when it is fighting elites defending their power and privileges, a force for reaction when confronted with lower classes seeking a revolutionary transformation of society.
The roles of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Chilean elites, the Chicago Boys, and the Chilean military in the coup that overthrew Allende and the neoliberal transformation of Chile under Pinochet have been well-documented and widely studied. There have, however, been few studies, apart from my thesis, on the role of the middle class as the mass base of the counterrevolution. Yet this angry middle-class mob was one of the central features of the Chilean political scene leading up to the coup.
Explaining Sept 11, 1973
After the coup of September 11, progressive analysis of the tragedy and the steps leading up to it focused on the role of the United States, which was seen as directing or working intimately with Pinochet and the leadership of the National and Christian Democratic parties. That a counterrevolutionary mass base had been central in the overthrow tended to be omitted, or if it wasn’t, the tendency was to regard it as largely a force manipulated by the CIA and the elites.
The reality, however, was that, contrary to the prevailing explanations of the coup, which attributed Pinochet’s success to U.S. intervention and the CIA, the counterrevolution was already there prior to the U.S. destabilization efforts; that it was largely determined by internal class dynamics; and that, even without the help of Washington, the Chilean elites found a formidable ally in the middle-class sectors terrified by the prospect of poor sectors rising up with their agenda of justice and equality.
In short, U.S. intervention did take place, but it was successful because it was inserted into an ongoing counterrevolutionary process that had its base in the middle class. CIA destabilization efforts were just one of the factors that contributed to the victory of the right, not the decisive one. This was not something that progressives wanted to hear then, since many wanted a simple black-and-white picture, that is, that the overthrow of Allende was orchestrated from the outside, by the United States.
Being of the left, I could understand why politics demanded such a portrayal of events. Being a sociologist, I realized that the situation was much more nuanced. In my writings on Chile and Thailand, I highlighted internal class conflict in counterrevolutionary mobilization, while not ignoring the role of external intervention or elite manipulation. My aim is simple but important: to warn both progressive analysts and activists that we ignore internal class dynamics at our peril and are satisfied with easy explanations.
By the time I left Chile around March 1973, I had witnessed two milestones in middle-class radicalization toward the right: the strike of small-truck owners and the marches of middle-class women banging pots and pans. The right by then controlled the streets, mounting demonstration after demonstration and subjecting people identified with the Unidad Popular to harassment and beatings. The left still mounted demonstrations, and the streets still resounded with the happy chant, “El que no salta es momio” (“He who does not jump is a reactionary”), but the mood of defensiveness had deepened.
I sensed it was only a matter of time before the united right would act against the Unidad Popular government. How it would do so and if it would be successful were questions I could not answer then. Still I was surprised at how brutal, thorough, and long the counterrevolution would be. That at least 3,000 people would be killed and thousands more would be turned into political prisoners or exiled was something I had not expected. And the irony is that it was not only the workers and peasants that were devastated by the economic policies of the Chicago Boys but the middle class that had mobilized against Allende as well.
In the next few years, I was involved in solidarity work with Chilean exiles in the United States even as I worked to bring down Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. I never could get Chile out of my mind, not least because I was haunted by what might have happened to my friends on the left. I was able to get in touch with only a few when I returned to Chile 20 years later, around 1993, to speak on what lessons the newly developing countries of Asia offered for Chile. It was the period of decompression, under the so-called Concertacion government that succeeded the Pinochet regime. Despite the looser political climate, there was still a great deal of reluctance on the part of the centrist government and, indeed, on the broad left to rehabilitate Allende, the man who had clung to the peaceful Via Chilena, the Chilean Road to socialism, until the end. He may have been naïve, but he was brave and principled, traits underlined by the act of taking his own life on Sept 11, 1973, rather than giving up the presidency.
I will never forget that day sometime in November 1972, outside La Moneda, the early nineteenth-century neoclassical presidential palace in Santiago, when my hand reached out for Allende’s as his open-air motorcade rolled by, and he shook it.