Marian Schlotterbeck. Beyond the Vanguard: Everyday Revolutionaries in Allende's Chile. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018. xiv + 234 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-520-29805-7; $34.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-520-29806-4.
Reviewed by Alexander Aviña (Arizona State University)
Published on H-LatAm (May, 2019)
Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)
In his homage to the 2011 Chilean student movement, written as the struggle unfolded, hip-hop artist SubVerso rapped: “El pueblo decide hasta dónde llega esto / Si se resuelve en la calle o el Congreso.” The people will decide the fate of the movement, not political vanguards or parties. While SubVerso argued that Concertación—the center-left political coalition that ruled Chile from 1990 to 2010—“was not on your side,” students in the street chanted, “The People United Go Forward Without Parties” (p. 166).
Marian Schlotterbeck’s rich study of revolutionary politics from below in Chile during the 1960s and early 1970s captures a previous moment of tension between “the people” and political vanguards, between the street and the halls of Congress, prior to and during the experiment to enact a peaceful, democratic transition to socialism beginning with the presidential election of Salvador Allende in late 1970. Focused on the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (MIR or Movement of the Revolutionary Left), a clandestine revolutionary Marxist-Leninist political party founded in 1965 that advocated armed struggle, Beyond the Vanguard tells the story of how ordinary Chileans who became miristas understood and practiced revolution in everyday ways, places, and relationships. Situating her study in the Chilean south, in the “red zone” (p. 7) of Concepción and the surrounding industrial, textile, and peasant communities, Schlotterbeck uses more than sixty oral histories to argue that “revolutionary change took the form of quotidian transformations in people’s everyday lives” (p. 6). If the MIR ultimately failed to seize state power, its militants’ efforts to radically democratize workplaces, neighborhoods, communities, and personal relationships proved long-lasting and transformative.
This is a story about empowered Chilean students, workers, peasants, and urban poor living in radical times and acting in creative ways to radically alter circumstances not of their making—all the while knowing they were making history, that they were transforming their communities and country for the better. If the MIR leadership aspired to become a “revolutionary vanguard” capable of seizing state power via armed struggle, Schlotterbeck argues it practically worked as a “grassroots movement for revolution” (p. 12) that combined New Left calls for revolutionary transformation with political practices and traditions firmly rooted in the Chilean Old Left and local political cultures: mass participation, direct action, grassroots organizing, and participatory, radical democracy. In writing the history of the MIR from below, she convincingly undermines previous characterizations of the group that generally range from troublesome rabble-rousers and young, idealistic “ultra-leftists” who undermined Allende’s plan for orderly socialist revolution from above, to irresponsible adventurists who provoked the right-wing counterrevolution in 1973 with their militant praxis.
Perhaps most importantly, she recovers the multiple meanings that grassroots miristas attributed to their revolutionary activism. Like Peter Winn’s Ex-Yarur textile workers, the miristas in Beyond the Vanguard challenged the leaders of the Chilean revolution con sabor a empanada y vino tinto to expand their conceptual and temporal definitions of revolution to include the lived experiences of the street, the factory floor, and the countryside; that revolutionary processes look and move differently from below; that building socialism in Chile while protecting Allende’s government “became understood locally as enacting equality and redistributive justice in the present” (p. 118). As Amanda Galindo Mardones, a pobladora (urban poor) who participated in the toma (seizure) of land in 1970 to create a shantytown dubbed Campamento Lenin, put it: “we took these lands because we didn’t have anywhere to live…. I like socialism … now at the very least I have a plot of land” (p. 73). The failure of leaders like Allende and the MIR Political Commission to fully grasp the implications of this revolutionary challenge from below, Schlotterbeck suggests, represents one of the reasons why the Chilean revolution proved unable to stem the violent counterrevolution that culminated on September 11, 1973.
Though left-wing militants founded the MIR in Santiago in 1965, spurred by the failure of the Chilean Left in the 1964 elections, Schlotterbeck situates her study in Concepción. The southern red city, she argues, forged the social, political, and ideological core of the revolutionary group, beginning with the 1965 university reform movement. Student efforts to democratize the university, combined with local traditions of working-class radicalism and autonomy dating back to the Popular Front era of the 1930s and 40s, created a generation of grassroots militants and leaders able to form powerful cross-class political movements. (Indeed, the MIR’s national leadership would come from this Concepcíon-based movement). The radically democratic open assemblies, grassroots organizing, and direct action in the streets that characterized the university reform movement and brought students, pobladores, and workers together became the MIR’s “modus operandi” (p. 17) in subsequent years—despite its talk of leading armed insurrection during the final years of the Eduardo Frei presidency (1964-70) or “a revolutionary breakthrough” (p. 149) in the final year of Allende’s tenure.
Ensuing chapters on workers, pobladores, the July 1972 People’s Assembly, and popular responses to the October 1972 “Bosses Lockout” testify to the tension and fissures that existed between MIR leadership and grassroots participants; between MIR insurrectionary rhetoric and grassroots praxis; between Revolution and everyday revolutions. Schlotterbeck movingly chronicles the moments when the tension proved productive and transformative for miristas. MIR rejection of electoral politics in favor of combative direct action—along with the group’s “revolutionary masculine bravado” (p. 40)—helped attract coal and textile workers who seamlessly mixed Chilean anarchist traditions, Luis Emilio Recabarren, and Che Guevara in their political registers and action. Pobladores, too, embraced MIR direct action as they collaborated in the seizing of vacant urban lands to create shantytowns like Campamento Lenin and Carlos Condell in an effort to both build housing and socialism from below.
The oral histories of people like Rosa Jara Alegría (pobladora), Carlos Robles (poblador/fisherman), and Luis Reyes (textile worker) enable Schlotterbeck to show that the MIR’s most profound and longest-lasting contribution was to help everyday Chileans critically think of themselves as equals within a brutally hierarchical society. “We didn’t change power relations,” Reyes told Schlotterbeck, “but we changed the Chilean people…. people changed” (p. 162). The revolutionary designs of the MIR, Popular Unity, and Allende all depended on this radical transformation of consciousness as a prerequisite to turning the world upside down—which, perhaps, also helps explain the sheer brutality of a subsequent dictatorship that raped, tortured, exiled, killed, and disappeared tens of thousands to “eradicate leftist political culture in Chile” (p. 163). And yet the eradication failed, and the deep, rebellious memories of mirista activism live on in Concepción.
Beyond the Vanguard is an outstanding, innovative work of social and political history. Wonderfully written and empathetic in tone, Schlotterbeck has produced a must-read account of Chile’s thousand days of living in revolution.
. Translation: “The people will decide how far this will go / If it is settled in the streets or in Congress.” SubVerso, “Rap al Despertar,” official video, 2011, YouTube, https://youtu.be/kWdPN9cg1TY.
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