History is littered with lessons on why workers’ action is the key to real change, and Marx’s insights are crucial.
This month marks 45 years since the military coup that overthrew Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government in Chile. On 11 September 1973 general Augusto Pinochet seized power and within days oversaw the murder of about 30,000 people. Exile, prison and torture would follow for thousands more in the 17 years that Pinochet ruled the country.
Allende had been elected in 1970. His left wing programme of reforms wasn’t particularly radical, but his victory reflected a confident mood among an increasingly combatant working class. Seeing this as “their” government, workers, peasants and the poorest in society put forward their own demands. Without waiting for Popular Unity to pass legislation, peasants occupied the land and workers struck for better conditions and democracy in their workplaces.
Seeing their interests under threat, the capitalist class resorted to media campaigns of smears, far-right terror attacks and bosses’ strikes. Big business stopped production and transport of goods in an attempt to wreck the economy and bring Allende down.
The Popular Unity government was paralysed before these attacks. By contrast, thousands of workers responded by refusing to stop working and occupying the factories to keep them running. In the process, people created grassroots democratic organs (called cordones) to ensure businesses would remain open and to organise production and distribution of essential goods.
Instead of building on this mood to see the right off, Allende again and again sought to appease them. This meant that, whenever conflicts arose between workers and bosses, Popular Unity tended to side with the latter. It sent the army to evict workers from occupied factories and return them to the same owners who had tried to starve the country and drive Allende out.
Allende believed his right wing enemies would ultimately respect the constitution and the country’s long democratic tradition. He invited army officers, including Pinochet, to be part of his government.
Many accounts of the period portray Chilean society in an inexorable path towards socialism, which was suddenly aborted by a CIA-orchestrated conspiracy. They miss the point that Allende’s attitude was shaped by his commitment to a reformist strategy — that socialism could, and must be, achieved through parliamentary change.
But an alternative strategy rooted in the Marxist analysis of the state as a tool of bourgeois domination could have led to a different outcome.
In comparison to later Marxists, Marx wrote little about the state. This was partly due to the lesser role played by the state at the time when Marx was writing his works.
His original plan for Capital was to devote one of its volumes to the state.
And the bitter experience of the Paris Commune in 1871, when the proletariat briefly took power for the first time until they were massacred by the ruling class, led him to make clear, in the preface to the 1872 German edition of The Communist Manifesto, that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes”. It was a point he had developed in his study of the Commune, The Civil War in France.
His collaborator Friedrich Engels built on Marx’s insights in his Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State. He argued that the state arose with the emergence of different classes in order to mediate the irreconcilable interests of the groups society had split into. It was a tool for those at the top to exert their domination.
In 1917, after the February Revolution in Russia, Lenin drew the conclusions for revolutionaries in State and Revolution. The events of February had thrown up soviets (similar to the Chilean cordones) everywhere. Lenin characterised the situation between the bourgeois Provisional Government and the soviets as one of dual power. It could only be resolved in the interest of one of the two main classes in society.
Today in Britain the possibility of a left Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn again poses the question of whether the state apparatus can be run in the interest of workers. But believing that the multimillionaires will respect the “democratic will” of the people and surrender even a small part of their wealth and power just because Corbyn wins an election amounts to ignoring the lessons of Chile.
Already in 2015, a general hinted that the army could stage a mutiny if Corbyn became prime minister because his vision of foreign policy would “jeopardise the security of the UK”. And there are many economic compulsions big business could use to break Corbyn’s government — it didn’t take a military overthrow in Greece to make Syriza toe the line.
The state machine, with its unelected officials, its revolving doors connecting it to the boardrooms of big corporations, the army and the police will remain largely unchanged regardless of who governs.
If they felt their interests were under threat, however allegedly robust their democratic traditions, there are no lengths our rulers wouldn’t go to in order to stop us. The power to win in such situation lies in the actions of the masses in workplaces and on the streets.