The Notion of Equality in Chile’s Communist and Socialist Left, 1960-1973


On September 4, 1970, the Popular Unity (UP) coalition of left parties,1 with Salvador Allende as its candidate, won Chile’s presidential election. The brief and intense historical moment that ensued has been recognized by progressives all over the world as one of the greatest advances of its time toward the construction of a new society. It has been 40 years since the most terrible military coup in Chilean history (September 11, 1973), which, together with the tragic death of Allende2 and thousands of his compatriots, put an end to the revolutionary project of the UP. This anniversary provides an occasion for us to re-examine the notion of equality as it appeared in the theoretical/political context of that time.

Equality is central to any emancipatory project. As Daniel Singer wrote (1999: 223), the authentic notion of equality differs from apparently similar concepts currently in vogue such as “equity” or “equality of opportunity” – theoretically vague ideas formulated by advocates of the “Third Way” who dominated public debate during the last two decades (see, e.g., Giddens 1994). In the period of absolute neoliberal hegemony, various authors have focused their reflections on the enormous inequalities of our society and on the need to overcome them.3 At the same time, the experiences of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador since the end of the 1990s, as well as other struggles underway in the Southern Cone (such as those of the landless peasants in Brazil and of the Mapuche people in Chile), testify to a certain consciousness among the Latin American masses that they are fighting against social inequality and in favor of economic and cultural independence from countries of the Center.

With the current global economic crisis, and with the illusion of “capitalism with a human face” destroyed, it is time once again to explore a new model of society. To this end, it may be useful for present-day progressives to re-examine the approach developed by Chile’s Socialists and Communists and to consider what the Marxist tradition of this country can offer to the project of building an egalitarian and truly democratic society.

In Chile, the struggle to improve living conditions for the disadvantaged sectors of society dates back to the second half of the 19th century. It gained strength in the early 20th century through the influence of various political groups – including anarchists – in the strikes and uprisings of workers and landless peasants. In the new century, however, the struggles would be led by political parties, in particular the Partido Obrero Socialista (POS, founded in 1912) which became the Partido Comunista (PC) in 1922, and the Partido Socialista (PS) (founded in 1933).4

Social discontent grew steadily during the 1950s. With the exhaustion of the import-substitution model of development,5 which had been pursued in Chile since the end of the 1930s, there was neither economic growth nor any improvement in the condition of the popular sectors. This brought a heightened level of social conflict and, with it, a significant increase in votes for the Socialist and Communist parties. Between 1960 and 1973, the Marxist left not only flourished but also became more diverse, thanks to the influence of the Cuban Revolution and to the leftward movement of groups linked to the Catholic Church and to Christian-oriented centrist parties.6 But the greatest signal of advancing mass consciousness was the victory of the UP in the presidential elections.

It was in the 1960-73 period that the left formulated its notion of equality. It appeared both in the programs put forward by the People’s Action Front (FRAP, founded in 1956) along with its successor Popular Unity (UP, founded in 1969) and in the affirmations of organic intellectuals of the PC and the PS, including Allende. In Chile, as in other countries of the periphery, the concept of equality expressed the sense of injustice felt by disadvantaged social sectors because of the country’s enormous social and economic inequalities. It also made explicit the urgency of acting politically to forge a new social order. Finally, it linked Chilean struggles with those of other Latin American peoples.

In the following sections I will discuss:1) the type of egalitarianism advanced by Chile’s Communists and Socialists, 2) some of the theoretical groundings that they used, and 3) the demands put forward in actual social struggles. 

The Chilean left: a brief survey

The history of the Chilean left began in the second half of the 19th century (see Massardo 2008) with the founding of the Sociedad de la Igualdad (1850) and of other embryonic workers’ organizations in the context of Chile’s incipient capitalist development (1860-80). Within a few decades there arose cooperatives and mutual aid associations, and the social question7 implanted itself in the consciousness of intellectuals and activists.

The decade of the 1920s was one of strong social protest and severe repression. With the end of World War I, Chile’s nitrate exports were greatly reduced. This brought higher unemployment and a decline in the working class’s living conditions. In 1933 the GDP fell to half of what it had been in 1929 (Meller 1996: 47-55). The period was one of great instability, as several regimes rose and fell between the time of the 1924 military coup and the 12-day “Socialist Republic” of 1932. Subsequently, however, even without an economic recovery, the political system began to stabilize, and permitted the PC and PS to gain electoral representation.

Beginning at this time, the centrist Radical Party was able to manage the conflicts between left-wing and right-wing parties (Correa et al. 2001; Moulián 2006). Meanwhile, to block the advance of Nazism in Europe, the Soviet Union adopted the strategy of the Popular Front, an alliance among anti-fascist forces. In Chile in 1936, the PC promoted an agreement with the Socialist and Radical Democratic parties and with the Central Confederation of Workers (CTC). The Popular Front was seen by the PC as a bourgeois-democratic stage in which capitalist modernization would be carried out (see Milos 2008).

In 1938 Chile’s Popular Front gained its first electoral victory, but in a short time the alliance broke down. The presidents between 1938 and 1952 were all members of the Radical party. Their economic policy remained basically constant even though their governing partners were not the same ones that had initiated the Front. With the Communist Partyoutlawed between 1948 and 1958 (see note 4), its influence on the working class shrank (Correa et al. 2001).

During the period of the Radical governments, various splits occurred within the PS, and one of its fractions joined in 1952 with the outlawed PC to form the Frente del Pueblo, which sponsored the first presidential candidacy of Salvador Allende. His vote was modest (5.4%), but his campaign laid the groundwork for the formation in 1955 of the Frente Nacional del Puebloand, one year later of the FRAP. This coalition sought to unify the forces struggling for an anti-imperialist, anti-oligarchical and anti-feudal program.8 It included the PC, the PS, and a number of smaller formations.

The right-wing government of Jorge Alessandri (1958-64) was not capable of carrying out the social reforms demanded by the population. It could not even increase employment or reduce inflation. Moreover, various national and international developments in this period provided a favorable setting for new popular mobilizations. These included: 1) the exhaustion of the developmentalist model of the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America (CEPAL); 2) hopes generated by the Cuban Revolution and other guerrilla struggles; 3) the anti-colonial and national liberation movements of African and Asian peoples; and 4) the discovery of Marxism by broad sectors of university students.

By the mid-1960s, there were two major tendencies in the Chilean left: one linked to the FRAP – and, after 1969, to the UP – and the other linked to new groups like the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR) which were convinced that it was necessary to move toward armed struggle because the bourgeois parliamentary system would not allow into the government those forces that were committed to an agenda of social transformation. After the defeat of FRAP in the 1964 election (with 38.9% of the vote), the PC maintained its strategy of the “peaceful road” to power and sought increased alliances with centrist parties. The PS, in its 1967 congress, presented the option of armed struggle, despite the opposition of a more moderate sector within the party grouped around Allende. This did not prevent the incorporation into the UP of other small parliamentary parties whose support was crucial to Allende’s triumph in 1970 (with a 36.6% plurality).

In 1970, the UP considered the Chilean economy “monopolistic, dependent, oligarchical, and capitalist” (Meller 1996: 111) and called for the urgent modification of these traits.9 The main objectives of its economic program were: sustained industrial development, and modernization of the countryside. The structural reforms included: a) nationalization of the major mineral resources (copper, coal, nitrates, iron and steel); b) expansion of the “social property” sector through state control of the biggest industrial enterprises; c) acceleration of agrarian reform; d) state control of the banking system; and e) state control of the main wholesale firms and distributors. With these reforms, it was expected that the state would control the means of production, which would enable it to promote economic policies to satisfy the social demands of the population (114).

After Allende’s victory, popular pressure for the rapid implementation of socialist reforms increased. But this also intensified differences and tensions within the UP.10 Nonetheless, the period of Allende’s presidency was the only time in Chilean history that a government put forward, with mass support, structural reforms directed at achieving social equality.

The concept of equality in the political programs and newspapers of the Chilean left

Equality meant, for the Chilean left, assuring the conditions of social justice required for full human development, especially of the most disadvantaged. This concept was an important part, albeit sometimes only implicitly, of the electoral programs of the FRAP and the UP, and of the speeches and writings – as well as the newspapers – of the PC and the PS.

In the 1960s El Siglo, the official newspaper of the PC, which had mass circulation, devoted much attention to describing the social and cultural privations suffered by the Chilean people. At the same time, its writers highlighted the Party’s proposals to establish a new type of society based on equality – notably, agrarian reform, the expansion of the health and education systems, and support for the demands of the central trade union confederation (CUT) on wage policies and workers’ rights.

The PS newspaper, Izquierda, put forward similar demands, denouncing especially inflation and the marginalization of the poor.11 It called for taking political power and initiating a phase of deep social reforms, with special emphasis on worker protection and economic planning:

The right of workers in industry, agriculture, commerce, government service, and other activities to organize shall be raised to the level of a constitutional right…. Agricultural workers will enjoy the same organizing rights, the same working day, and the same rights to retirement, etc., as all other workers. Through the planned development of the national economy with direct participation of workers through the CUT, full employment for all wage-earners will be assured. (Godoy 1964: 10)

Equality meant obtaining these guarantees. Both Communists and Socialists saw workers as the central historical agent of social transformation.

The PS advocated such measures not only in its newspaper but also, more formally, at its 23rd Congress (1971). Here, such reforms were seen as fundamental to consolidating the government’s program, which sought to link bourgeois democratic with socialist tasks through worker participation in – and management of – both enterprises and policymaking:

Nationalization of imperialist enterprises, banks and insurance, expropriation of big monopolies and public utilities, state control of foreign trade, drastic agrarian reform based on mobilization of the peasants. Equal minimum wages and family allowances for workers, peasants and white-collar employees, cost-of-living adjustments for wages and salaries, and rapid rehiring of the unemployed. Incorporation of workers into the full exercise of power, developing worker-management in nationalized enterprises, with worker control if necessary, and building, from the ground up, a new political structure culminating in a People’s Assembly. (quoted in Jobet 1971: 176)

Faced with the misery of broad sectors of the population, the PS and the PC alike saw the urgency of implementing these economic measures. The policies they promoted were grounded in the principle of equality. This required above all an economic development that would give the country autonomy. Essential to achieving this was a government of the left, with a grand agenda of nationalizing mineral resources, carrying out agrarian reform, and developing a planned economy based on worker participation.

The presidential programs advanced by the FRAP in 1963 and by the UP in 1969 likewise advocated ideas of equality, in much the same terms, including in particular an emphasis on the active role of the State in generating an economic base that would deepen democracy and give the country autonomy. The UP declared:

The satisfaction of these just aspirations of the people … will be the prime concern of the People’s Government [Gobierno Popular]. Basic points of government action will be: a) … to establish a system of equal minimum wages and salaries for equal work, in whatever enterprise …; b) to unify, improve and extend the system of social security … to workers who do not yet have it …; c) to assure medical and dental preventive care and treatment to all Chileans …; d) to carry out an ambitious plan of housing construction …, limiting the profits of private and mixed enterprises operating in this sector …; remodeling cities and neighborhoods so as not to cast low-income people out to the outskirts …; e) There will be full civil authority [capacidad civil] for married women and equal legal status for all children whether born in or out of wedlock, as well as adequate divorce laws … with full regard for the rights of the mother and the children; f) The legal distinction between blue-collar workers [obreros] and white-collar workers [empleados] will be abolished, establishing for all the status of workers [trabajadores] and extending the right to organize to all those who do not already have it. (Programa UP 1969: 25-27)

These measures, taken together, would expand the capacities for development of each person.

Theoretical referents in Communist and Socialist discourse on equality

What concept of equality did Chilean Marxist intellectuals have in the 1960s? The PC leadership, aware of “ideological backwardness” among party activists, recognized on more than one occasion its difficulty in producing an original theoretical elaboration.

The theoretical treatment of the notion of equality among the PC’s organic intellectuals of this period was very limited. There are several possible reasons for this. First, the concept had not been much used in discussions on the left at that time, and had not been properly developed. Second, the party’s theoretical thought was subordinated to the immediate priorities of political struggle, focusing more on how to get into a position of power than on explaining the distribution of goods under socialism. Finally, party intellectuals had very little access to authors not singled out for attention by the party leadership on the basis of indications from the Communist parties of other countries. Consequently, they were forced to rely on secondary sources which were not necessarily attuned to their own theoretical-political interests. But even if they lacked a rigorous conceptualization of equality, equalitywas very much a part of their belief-system.

The theoretical notion under which equality was discussed within the PC was that of Communist Humanism. In his 1964 work, Orlando Millas identified Marxism with communism, and communism with humanism. He affirmed that the creative potential of humans would unfold under communism and therefore that this was what Chile should aspire to. He wrote of Marxism, “its principles and goal, socialism and communism, lead to the triumph of humanity; it is real humanism, and for this very reason it unleashes torrents of creative impulses. This must be the future of Chile” (Millas 1964: 62). Millas also asserted, in his 1968 book, El humanismo científico de los comunistas, that communist humanism would transcend the limitations of bourgeois humanism, that is, those imposed by capital: the exploitation of man by man, and loss of freedom.

This humanism was viewed by the PC as the principle that would guide the distribution of goods in communist society. In a 1967 edition of the journal Principios commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, its editor Carlos Jorquera took up Lenin’s commentary on Marx’s maxim from the Critique of the Gotha Program – “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” – to remind his readers that under socialism distribution would be in accordance with one’s work. In communist society, distribution would be in accordance with need, but for this to be possible, it would be indispensable to have an abundant production of goods, for which purpose the PC stressed the need to raise the levels of industrialization and of labor productivity (Jorquera 1967: 27-28).

In sum, communist humanism provided the PC with a basis both for criticizing capitalism and for guiding the construction of the society would eventually replace it. It was in this context that equality would be realized, because once private ownership of the means of production was eliminated, there would no longer be any basis for the exploitation of one human being by another. Redistribution on the basis of need would then become possible.

It was intellectuals of the PS – Clodomiro Almeyda and, especially, Salvador Allende – who made explicit use of the notion of equality. Almeyda wrote in 1948 that distribution in communist society would be in accordance with need, or with what one deserved in terms of one’s own traits and not on the basis some externally imposed criterion. At the same time, he also stressed that a sufficiently high level of economic, technological and cultural development would be required in order to make this possible.

In 1963, the Socialist journal Arauco devoted two issues to a course given by Almeyda on the Marxist conception of man. Here for the first time a Socialist intellectual embraced the notions of equality and justice in the form put forward by Marx for communist society, based on distribution in accordance with need. Regarding the preconditions for such an outcome, he wrote,

It is not easy to arrive at the moment when each person will be given what s/he needs. That implies and presupposes that man will have succeeded in producing sufficient goods to be able to satisfy the requirements of human wellbeing. For this reason, only a society enriched by labor can be completely just; only in a society capable of producing wellbeing can one imagine the authentic attainment of justice. (Almeyda 1963: 24)

With regard to the earlier phase – in which distribution is in accordance with work – Almeyda argued that this is still at least more just than the practice of capitalist society, because the worker’s labor then better expresses his or her “concrete being” (24).

The true Justice that is brought by distribution based on need, Almeyda further argues, does not imply an “abstract equality which imposes leveling and uniformity … but rather a concrete equality which provides to everyone in equal measure the different things that each person needs depending on his or her particular nature” and what each requires in order to “participate constructively with his or her particular activity in society as a whole” (24).

Salvador Allende, for his part, starting in the early 1960s, referred in his speeches to Chilean socialism as a Marxist practice. Like the Communists, he affirmed that “socialism is impregnated with a deeply humanist meaning.” The abolition of social classes, socialization of the means of production, and the right to private ownership of articles of consumption would make socialist society an expression of maximum freedom and respect for the individual. Already in 1964, Allende showed that he viewed the socialist maxim of distribution in accordance with work as a fundamental principle: “Socialist production is planned for the sake of use and not for profit, and the products are distributed on the basis of the amount of work done” (Allende 1964: 55).

Regarding social equality, he noted that it cannot be achieved if “man is born and lives” in a society that makes him suffer limitations based on his socio-economic and cultural background. Allende also opposed viewing socialist equality as entailing homogenization, as he emphasized the merit of each individual. He said that a true meritocracy is only possible in a society in which the means of production have been socialized and in which exploitation and social inequalities have been eradicated. Equality in its full sense is thus integral to the realization of individuality; it is an “equality of possibilities for all” (1964: 56).

With a new historic sense, and with the enthusiasm and the challenges generated by his becoming president, Allende in a speech on November 5 1970 denounced the violence, the privations, and the frustrations suffered by the Chilean people. He announced the commitment of the People’s Government to transform this reality. He affirmed that the “Chilean road to socialism” – electoral or peaceful – expressed the will “of the people” to satisfy its “material and spiritual” needs:

We shall have a life of equality:

– Equality to overcome gradually the division between Chilean who exploit and Chileans who are exploited.

– Equality so that each person can participate in the common wealth in accordance with both work and need.

– Equality in order to reduce enormous differences in pay for the same work activities.

– Equality is indispensable to assuring every person the dignity and the respect that s/he should demand. (Allende 1970: 39-40)

The challenge that arose with the people’s ascent to power was to construct a Just State. Allende believed that this was possible if the government was supported by the (new) morality of the people, with its commitment and its responsibility. In his Report to the People (1972), he linked the need for social equality to several issues, specifically, work, housing, health, and education. Work would be guided by what he called “economic democracy.” Equality had been advanced by ending differences in pay between technicians and professionals, between workers and peasants, and by ending unemployment. It had also meant getting rid of “rundown tenements, shacks, hovels, and other unhealthy dwellings” (1972: 222) and assuring everyone a decent place to live. Similarly with health services and with education, which now included university courses for workers. So also with changes in social security laws, which provided subsidies for maternity, widowhood, and retirement, with family allowances now equalized between workers, peasants, and public employees, including armed forces and police. All these measures were part of the UP Program.

A central element in the thinking of Allende and of the PS as a whole was that social ownership of property had to be accompanied by democratic management, oriented toward production for the satisfaction of human need. All these elements, taken together, had brought a deepening of democracy through the conquest of economic independence.

In sum, equality for the PS is part of building socialism. A socialist government must offer egalitarian social, cultural, political, and economic conditions (which everyone depends on), and must avoid feeding into the privileges that reinforce capitalist society. Only such a radical change will make possible the complete flowering of each person’s faculties, to the benefit of both the individual and the whole society.

The legacy of Popular Unity for present-day Chile

The principle defended by Chile’s Communists and Socialists between 1960 and 1973 was one that G.A. Cohen (2000) has defined as radical egalitarianism: an egalitarianism that fought against disparities for which individuals were not responsible – disparities based on class, gender, ethnicity, and physical or mental disabilities. After the structural transformations carried out since the 1973 military coup and its installation of neoliberalism, the left never returned to what it had been during the period of Popular Unity.

The PS rewrote its history. Its renovation occurred in the 1980s, when it abandoned Marxism and turned itself into a social democratic party with a neoliberal type of program. It was mainly interested in having a role in government through an alliance called the Concertación of Parties for Democracy, which included the Christian Democrats (PDC), the Pro-Democracy Party (PPD), and the Social Democratic Radical Party (PRSD). Since the 1990s, the programs of the Concertación’s presidential candidates (who belonged to the PDC and the PS) included the idea of equality in their electoral programs and later in their presidential speeches, but with a meaning that differed from that of the past and was much closer to the bourgeois tradition. Thus, Eduardo Frei of the PDC (1994-2000) and Ricardo Lagos (2000-06) and Michelle Bachelet (2006-10) of the PS, although promoting policies to aid the dispossessed, did so within the context of maintaining the free market and made no mention of the origins of inequality in the capitalist mode of production.

The PC, for its part, in addition to suffering the death and persecution of much of its cadre by the dictatorship, never recovered the electoral strength it had enjoyed up to 1973. After its turn to armed “popular rebellion” in the 1980s and its failure to overthrow the dictatorship, the party decided in the 1990s to return to an electoral strategy. This brought the PC severe internal crises without producing positive results, as the party remained outside of any electoral alliance for the elections of 1992 through 2008. In the last few years, the need to attain some level of inclusion induced the party to make pacts with the Concertación so as to win a few seats in Congress and a few mayoralties.

In this context, several analysts agree that the PC has shown little awareness of ideas that were central to it in the past, like social transformation, revolution, and its vision of socialism. Although it has retained ties among certain social groups, such as students and workers who reject neoliberalism and its profound inequalities, the party has not succeeded in articulating a radical critique of the system or a way to go beyond it. Its discourse points to the urgent need for a more just society, but it remains within the constraints of the Constitution of 1980 imposed by the dictatorship, and its concrete program merely criticizes neoliberalism and the reduced level of democracy. Equality means only that it demands policies in which the State exercises greater technical and financial responsibility, and keeps the market out of issues like education, health, and the regulation of cities and of employment, etc.

Like the Socialists, the Communists seem to have given up on ending exploitation, and also on socialization of the means of production – and on anti-capitalism more generally – as guiding horizons for present-day practice. Today, equality for them is far from being radical.

Recovering the notion of “radical equality,” along with the legacy of Communists’ and Socialists’ past – and especially of the period of their greatest splendor in Chile –, would give the Chilean social movement an opportunity to reject policies and actions that have been reduced to seeking “what’s possible” insofar as such notions rule out the radically emancipatory horizon that ought to be envisaged. Re-appropriating the notion of radical equality and bringing it back into the social movement – with whatever adjustments might be necessary to the new context – would not only amplify the most important criticisms of capitalism, but would also illuminate fundamental aspects of the new kind of society that must be built. An urgent initial step for the Chilean left to recover its heritage would be to abrogate the Constitution of 1980.

Translated by Victor Wallis


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1. Chile’s Marxist Left up to 1964 included mainly the Communist Party (PC) and the Socialist Party (PS). They led the FRAP and the UP coalitions, although the latter was also joined in 1971 by a new Marxist party, the Movement of Unitary Popular Action (MAPU). For details, see Moulián 2009.

2. On Allende’s life, see Winn 2005.

3. An important referent for recent discussion has been the work of US philosopher John Rawls (1971). Inequality was also a constant preoccupation of institutions concerned with public policy in countries of the periphery or semi-periphery. See for example CEPAL 2010.

4. Both the PC and the PS obtained significant electoral support and participated in various governing coalitions since 1938. In the municipal elections of 1947, the PC got 16.5% of the votes and the PS got 8.7%. After the 1958 rescinding of the repressive Law for the Permanent Defense of Democracy (which had been imposed in 1948), both parties enjoyed a gradual increase in their numbers of voters, which peaked in the 1971 municipal elections, when the Communists received 17.1% and the Socialists 22.6%.

5. The drive to industrialization began in Chile in the 1920s. For details, see Meller 1996.

6. The Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR), founded in 1965, criticized the electoralist strategy of the PC and the PS and identified with the continental vision articulated by Fidel Castro. On the other hand, the Catholic constituency was affected as some of its leading activists split from the Christian Democrats to form MAPU (note 1) and the Christian Left (IC).

7. The “social question,” a term that originated among European left intellectuals, reached Chile around 1880. It referred to the social and ideological consequences of nascent industrialization and urbanization. See Grez 1997.

8. According to the literature, the FRAP was a complex and contradictory phenomenon, reflecting the PS in its social composition and ideology and the PC in its policy and program (Casals 2010; Arrate & Rojas 2003).

9. The economy displayed a high level of concentration. In industry, 3% of the firms controlled almost 60% of the capital; in agriculture, 2% of the holdings owned 55% of the land; in mining, 3 US companies controlled all the great copper mines; in wholesale trade, 12 firms controlled 44% of sales. Copper accounted for 75% of the country’s exports, and 61 of the 100 biggest industrial firms had foreign investment. In terms of income distribution, the poorest 10% of the population got 1.5% of the total while the richest 10% got 40.2% (Meller 1996: 111-13).

10. The PC, despite tensions within its ranks, encouraged affiliation with the UP by historically important groups like the Central Workers’ Confederation (CUT). The PS sparked the creation of the cordones industriales (industrial belts) as an expression of “people’s power.” As right-wing sabotage increased, the cordones and other base organizations became centers of support for the government, endeavoring to maintain production and to assure the regular supply of articles of necessity to the population. For details, see Winn 2004 and Gaudichaud 2004.

11. As one witness observed in Izquierda,“While the wives of big landowners give birth in luxurious clinics …, the peasant woman gives birth to her child – in about 80% of cases – next to the kitchen stove or by the sink where she washes the miserable clothes of her family” (Osorio 1964: 8).

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