Here in the Czech Republic, it is no ordinary Tuesday. Today in the Czech calendar is Freedom and Democracy Day. November 17th 1989 marks a significant day in the modern history of the Czech Republic. November 17th 1989 occupies a position in the narrative of Czech history, like October 28th 1918, of the beginning of a hopeful new era. It marks the emergence from the oppression of regime foisted on Czechs from outside. In 1918, it was casting off the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire to form the First Czechoslovak Republic. In 1989, it was casting off a calcified Communist regime which had since the beginning of the 1970s enforced ‘normalization’ following the crushing of the Prague Spring. These are the parallels between 1918 and 1989, and as with any narratives of national freedom, they are highly seductive. But, the truth of the events of 1989, the ‘velvet revolution’, and the end of Communist rule beginning with the student protests on November 17th that year are decidedly more complicated. Continue reading
Category Archives: Socialism
The Irish diaspora has a long history of involvement in radical politics in Britain. Their contribution to the labour movement in the form of the Chartists, producing leading lights such as Feargus O’Connor and Bronterre O’Brien; the matchmakers strike in 1888 in East London; the London dockers strike of 1889; the influence of James Connolly and Jim Larkin; and the first Labour Minister for Health in the minority government of 1924 being the Irish-born John Wheatley; is well-established. The Irish have also formed their own branches of home-grown organisations in Britain, such as the IRB, the Gaelic League, and the IRA. I have recently started a postdoc at the Irish Centre for the Histories of Labour and Class at NUI Galway which examines the impact Irish independence had on the British working-class in the period 1922-1945. Part of this explores the life and politics of the Irish working-class diaspora in Britain at the time. In the Ireland of this time, arguably one of the most important, and certainly one of the most debated radical organisations to be formed (and fall-apart) was Republican Congress.
Congress was formed as a left-wing split from the IRA in 1934. For a number of years, the left within the IRA, led by Peadar O’Donnell, Frank Ryan, and George Gilmore amongst others, had attempted to reform the organisation in a leftward direction, convinced that the gun alone would not achieve the Republic. The IRA, they believed, needed to take-up social issues, engaged alongside the workers and small farmers in their day-to-day struggles to convince them of the relevance of the fight for the Republic that would bring an improvement to their lives. The IRA had made overtures in this direction with the formation of the socialist-republican Saor Éire in 1931, but the ensuing ‘red scare’ put paid to that venture. After a number of subsequent failed attempts of reform by the left, which culminated in a vote at the 1934 Army Convention, O’Donnell and the others walked out. A conference held in Athlone, County Westmeath on the weekend of 7-8 April issued a manifesto proclaiming the creation of Republican Congress with the call ‘We believe that a Republic of a united Ireland will never be achieved except through a struggle which uproots Capitalism on its way.’ The momentum behind Republican Congress grew throughout the summer of 1934. Strong branches were created in Achill, Leitrim, Kilkenny, Dublin and Waterford. Congress engaged in many social campaigns to improve the lives of working-class people in Ireland, such as through the creation of the Tenants Leagues to fight for improvements in housing for the slum-dwellers of Dublin. Congress held its inaugural conference at Rathmines town hall from 29-30 September 1934, where, as is well known, it split. First-hand accounts are available from George Gilmore and Patrick Byrne here and here. Despite this, Congress continued to campaign until the end of the decade, the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 giving it a new lease of life.
Congress did not just organise in Ireland however, but also had a branch among the Irish diaspora in London. This included many talented individuals who would later go to fight and die in Spain such as Charlie Donnelly, Michael Kelly, and Tommy Patten. The Republican Congress in London even produced its own newspaper, Irish Front. I have been able to locate one copy of this dated 11 May 1935, Issue 5 of Vol 1, which is reproduced here. My apologies for the poor quality, it is a copy of a copy of a copy. From the issue I have found, Irish Front, although poorly-produced, provided a well-informed left analysis of Irish and British issues for the Irish diaspora. Its notices also give a tantalizing glimpse into the political activities of the Irish diaspora in Britain. The London branch of Congress would later fuse with other small organisations in 1938 to create the Connolly Association, an organisation which continues to this day and whose most famous member was the historian C. Desmond Greaves, author of a number of important works on twentieth-century Irish socialist and republican history, including The Life and Times of James Connolly (1961). Irish Front is an important publication in the history of labour and republican radicalism among the Irish in twentieth-century Britain. I appeal to anyone who may know of any other copies that are available, regardless of whether these be in a library or among your personal papers, in whatever quality, to please get in touch with me at
david DOT convery AT nuigalway DOT ie
Thank you, your help is much appreciated!
 George Gilmore, The Irish Republican Congress (Cork: The Cork Workers’ Club, 1978), p. 30.
 Patrick Byrne, The Irish Republican Congress Revisited (London: Connolly Publications Ltd, 1994), pp. 21-22.
‘History cannot be stopped by either repression or crime.’
Salvador Allende, 11 September 1973
On 11 September 1973 troops moved into position in the major cities of Chile, occupying telecommunications, water and electricity plants, securing road and rail junctions and surrounding the presidential palace in Santiago, La Moneda, trapping inside the nation’s president, Salvador Allende.
Allende had been voted into the office of president in September 1970, his left-wing coalition Popular Unity (UP) having secured 36.6 per cent in the popular ballot. The UP was composed and dominated by the Socialist Party and the Communist Party, along with smaller left-wing organisations and the centrist Radical Party. It was elected on a broad progressive programme that advocated widespread agrarian reform, increased provision to health and education for the poor in the cities and the countryside, and the nationalisation of the key sector of the economy, the copper industry, controlled by US companies. These reforms would be accompanied by the gradual introduction of worker and community representatives in the decision-making process in the workplace and in state institutions. This top-down ‘revolution’ was dubbed the Chilean road to socialism. Despite the seemingly narrow victory for Allende himself, this programme was very similar to the one advocated by the Christian Democratic Party (PDC), although not carried out in practice while it was in government. Embarking on the election campaign with similar policies, the PDC candidate received 27.8 per cent of the vote. These suggested reforms then, had a far wider base in society than the vote for Allende at first suggests. The bill to nationalise the copper industry, advocated by Allende for the past thirty years, had become such a widely accepted idea that it was passed unanimously in Congress and signed into law on 22 November 1970. Not everything would go so smoothly.
Allende’s reforms threatened the vested interests not only of the Chilean elite, but also of the United States. The US had since the early nineteenth century pursued a policy of domination in what it called ‘its own backyard’, i.e. Latin America, as advocated in the Monroe Doctrine, exploiting the continent’s resources for its own benefit through clientelist relations with often corrupt governments. The Cold War exacerbated these tendencies, prompting major investment in finance for right-wing media and political parties, and overt and covert military training to stop the spread of what it called ‘communism’ in Latin America. Any mildly reformist government in the region posed a threat to the US domination of the continent’s resources, and so could be tarred with the communist brush and overthrown as with Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954. The success of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 inspired thousands of Latin Americans, and intensified US concern with the region. Thus the CIA spent between $800,000 and $1,000,000 trying to stop the election of the UP in 1970. When this alone failed to have the desired effect, a new strategy was required.
President Nixon famously instructed his people to ‘make the economy scream’, and ordered the CIA to begin preparing for what was called ‘Track II’ – a military coup. Right-wing terrorist groups funded by the CIA carried out bomb attacks, kidnappings and assassinations, assigning blame to left-wing paramilitary groups in order to create a climate of fear. Despite this, the UP increased its vote in the municipal elections of April 1971 to over 50 per cent. Violence intensified between left groups and the fascistic ‘Land and Liberty’ group, and street demonstrations involving the wealthy became common. In October 1972, a national transport strike organised and supported by business, the PDC and largely funded by the CIA inflicted large damage on the economy. Allende rallied hundreds of thousands of people to voluntarily transport goods, consolidating his own base, but the failure of the strike also intensified the calls for a coup among the right. In many ways Allende was too wedded to the idea of freedom of speech, and naive regarding the role of the military. In March 1972, documents were released demonstrating efforts by US multinational ITT to undermine the UP government, supported by the CIA and right-wing groups in Chile. Throughout that year, sections of the media openly called for a coup, but Allende failed to sanction them. Furthermore, Allende had an unwavering belief in the constitutionalism of the Chilean military, and failed to significantly reform it during his time in office. During the transport strike, he even appointed three military men to cabinet. Despite an unsuccessful coup attempt by the 2nd Armoured Regiment on 29 July 1973, defeated by officers loyal to the government, Allende failed to act. This lack of action would in the end undermine him.
In the weeks following, more and more officers loyal to the government were replaced in their positions by supporters of a coup. On 11 September 1973, upon the orders of General Pinochet, they struck.
At 6 a.m. naval forces took the port city of Valparaiso, and cut communications with Santiago. At 8 a.m. the military moved in the capital. The coup was relatively quick and bloody. Allende, however, holed up in La Moneda with a group of defenders, refused to surrender. At 9.15 a.m., Allende gave his last speech to the nation:
This will surely be my last opportunity to address you. The Air Force has bombed the towers of Radio Portales and Radio Corporación. My words contain not bitterness, just disappointment. They should stand as a moral castigation of those who have been traitors to their oaths: Chilean soldiers, titular commanders-in-chief, Admiral Merino, who has designated himself commander of the Navy, and even more señor Mendoza, the cringing general who only yesterday manifested his fidelity and loyalty to the Government, and who also has named himself Director General of the Carabineros. In the face of these deeds it only falls to me to say to the workers: I shall not resign!
Standing at a historic point, I will repay with my life the loyalty of the people. And I say to you that I am certain that the seed we have planted in the worthy conscience of thousands and thousands of Chileans, cannot be reaped at one stroke. They have the power, they can make us their vassals, but they cannot stop the social processes, neither by crime nor by force. History is ours, and it is made by the people.
Workers of my country: I want to thank you for the loyalty you have always had, the confidence you placed in a man who was only the interpreter of great yearnings for justice, who pledged his word to respect the Constitution and the law, and who did so. In this final moment, the last in which I will be able to address myself to you, I want you to take advantage of the lesson: foreign capital and imperialism, united with reaction, created the climate for the Armed Forces to break their tradition, which they were taught by general Schneider and which was reaffirmed by commander Araya, victims of the same social sector that today will be be expecting, with an alien hand, to reconquer the power to continue defending their profits and their privileges.
I address myself to you, above all to the modest woman of our land, to the campesina who believed in us, the mother who knew of our concern for the children. I address myself to the professionals of the nation, to the patriotic professionals who continued working against the sedition overseen by their professional academies, classist academies that also defended the advantages of a capitalist society.
I address myself to the youth, to those who sang and who brought their happiness and their spirit to the fight. I address myself to the man of Chile, to the worker, to the campesino, to the intellectual, to those who will be persecuted, because in our country fascism has now been present for several hours; in the terrorist assassinations, blowing up the bridges, cutting the railways, destroying the oil and gas pipelines, in the face of the silence of those who had the obligation to behave.
They too were committed. History will judge them.
Radio Magallanes will surely be silenced and the calm metal of my voice will no longer reach you. That is not important. You will continue to hear me. I will always be with you. At least my memory will be that of a man of dignity who was loyal to the nation.
The people should defend themselves, but not sacrifice themselves. The people should not allow themselves be subdued or persecuted, but neither should they humble themselves.
Workers of my country, I have faith in Chile and its destiny. Other men will go beyond this grey and bitter moment when treason tries to impose itself upon us. Continue to know that, much sooner than later, we will reopen the great promenades down which free men pass, to construct a better society.
Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers!
These are my last words and I am certain that my sacrifice will not be in vain, I am certain that, at the least, I will be a moral lesson to castigate felony, cowardice, and treason.
Following his speech, Allende released anyone not in state service. Meanwhile, he and a few others, remained to defend the building. As fighter jets bombed La Moneda, and helicopters fired tear gas through the flames, Allende and his cohort fired from the windows at the attackers. When the ammunition was spent, he ordered the surrender of the remaining defenders to spare their lives while he closed the door behind him, and refusing to surrender, committed suicide.
In the massacre that followed, thousands were rounded up, tortured and executed, most famously in the National Stadium in Santiago, as graphically depicted in the 1982 film Missing. Amongst these was the popular Chilean folk singer Victor Jara. Thousands more simply ‘disappeared’, a practice to become common in Latin America over the next two decades. Hundreds of thousands more were forced into exile, including the playwright Ariel Dorfman and the film-maker Patricio Guzman, director of The Battle of Chile which documents the three years of the UP government and the Pinochet coup, and the 2004 documentary Salvador Allende.
Pinochet’s junta, with the assistance of US advisors including the ‘Chicago Boys’, would become an experimental ground for what would be termed ‘neo-liberalism’. Privatisations of areas including health and education would become the norm, lauded by Reagan and Thatcher. Despite the transition to democracy in 1990, the effect of the coup and dictatorship is still strongly felt in Chile.
Forty years on, Allende and the UP continue to inspire. A statue of Allende now keeps watch over La Moneda, and the efforts of the UP have been emulated to an extent by a new wave of left-leaning governments throughout the continent. Forty years on, it is important that we remember not only the coup, but the efforts of millions in Chile and throughout Latin America to change society for the benefit of the majority, and that we learn from their experiences. In this way, the disappeared will not have vanished.