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Márcia Cury, O protagonismo popular: Experiências de classe e movimentos sociais na construção do socialismo chileno (1964-1973)

Campinas SP, Editora da Unicamp, 2017
David P. Lacerda
p. 204-208
Référence(s) :
Márcia Cury, O protagonismo popular: Experiências de classe e movimentos sociais na construção do socialismo chileno (1964-1973), Campinas SP, Editora da Unicamp, 2017.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Eric Hobsbawm, Era dos extremos. O breve século xx: 1914-1991. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 200 (...)
  • 2 The popular protagonism: experiences of class and social movements in the construction of Chilean s (...)

1The strength of the subaltern classes vis-a-vis political-ideological domination and socioeconomic inequalities constitutes a striking feature in the histories of Latin America—and of many other histories around the Global South—in the 20th Century. Part of those histories alludes to the active role of the left in the anti-imperialist struggles in many countries of the colonial and Latin American world post-Great Depression.1 The Chilean context does not escape this scenario, as it is pointed out in O protagonismo popular: experiências de classe e movimentos sociais na construção do socialismo chileno (1964-1973)2, by Márcia Cury, specialist in the Chilean and contemporary Latin American history. Published in 2017, by Editora da Unicamp, the book was recently published in Spanish by LOM Ediciones, in Santiago, Chile. The result that now comes to light in two languages showcases the research that the author conducted in archives and libraries in Santiago, for the preparation of her doctoral thesis in Political Science, defended in 2013 at the Universidade Estadual de Campinas (Unicamp).

2Combining analytical accuracy with a careful and elegant writing style, the author invites us to consider Chilean politics and society before and during the government of Salvador Allende (1970-1973). The five chapters of her work are united by a common concern: to find out which hopes, beliefs, passions, and material interests shaped the horizons of expectation of male and female workers in relation to socialism. These elements constitute the thread of the narrative and the historical explanation of the troubled process of working-class formation and the quest to construct a democratic socialist society. It is a study openly inspired by the tradition of “bottom-up” social history. This field defines the terms of the critical dialogue that Márcia Cury establishes with the already well-referenced bibliography on the political history and the history of the Chilean left (Peter Winn, Ingrid Seguel-Boccara, Alberto Aggio, among others), in an attempt to shift the focus from the institutional history of the industrial workers’ movement to the context of a social history concerned with the subjects and their practices in the worlds of labour, similar to the approaches of authors whose research interests have revolved around these issues (Mario Garcés, Bóris Cofré and Sandra Soto).

3More precisely, the author analyses the political aspect of this process from the workers’ and popular movements’ perspectives by examining a large repertoire of primary and secondary sources. The volume and the diversity of documentary types are impressive. Companies, industrial workers’ associations, and official press documents, as well as films and music underpin the study. The use of oral history as an auxiliary methodological resource is noteworthy. The interviews with women and men who participated in the poblaciones, the cordones industrials (industrial belts), the communal commands and the trade union movement bring up intriguing and very valuable information provided by the voices of the subjects who built part of the dramatic history of the Andean country. While outlining her approach and explaining the documentary context, Cury never abandons theoretical rigour. On the contrary, this is the ground on which she confronts empirical evidence, categories, and historical interpretations. The decision to dialogue with E. P. Thompson is explicitly stated in the introductory text. Not only has the author chosen to align her theoretical-conceptual basis with a certain theoretical practice. What can be glimpsed in this choice is an attempt to define the field of political and historiographical debate. It is in this sense that class, class struggle and class consciousness constitute the theoretical core of the work, from which reflections on identity, conflict, culture and class solidarity unfold.

4This is the architecture of O protagonismo popular. But what story does the book tell? “The labour movement and the social question in public debate” is its starting point. The period between 1930 and 1950 features a set of economic, social, and political transformations in Chilean history. The diversification of the economic base was followed by the growth of the industrial proletariat, propelled by the migration and employment of rural workers in the extraction of saltpetre and coal, and in port and railroad work. At the same time, political dissension was defined by two poles. On one side, the Radical Party and the Democratic Party adhered to the interests of the bourgeoisie, the oligarchy, and some segments of the urban middle classes. On the other side, the Socialist Party and the Communist Party “started to be featured as the main representatives of the popular classes”. Another aspect of this process is related to the role of the State in promoting economic development and in conflict mediation around social issues whose outlines were (re)defined in public debate, in labour legislation, in the establishment of the union model and, above all, among the expectations of most of the population. Cury points out that the State had become “the common element of all political discourses and projects in dispute, from right to left, in the national political scene” (p. 48), although it occurred in entirely different ways within the political-party scene, especially after the creation of the Popular Front—a centre-left alliance composed of communists, socialists and radicals—in 1936. The Popular Front’s rise to power in 1938 marked a shift in which “the State was considered an element of order by the ruling classes, but it started to be identified as a factor of production of a new society and a space for the struggle against capital by the dominated classes” (p. 96), largely because of the weight that the left and the labour movement acquired in national public debate between 1938 and September 11, 1973.

5The path continues and reaches another point. “Building identities: the struggles of everyday life” starts from the observation that the migratory flow transformed the urban fabric into an arena of conflicts, where bonds of solidarity were affirmed between the poblador movement and the labouring classes. The formation of conventillos (tenements), campamentos, poblaciones (popular neighbourhoods) and callampas (popular settlements based on more peripheral areas) shaped urban geography and were arenas for “political learning through the practice of collective action” (p. 100). In this sense, the chapter demonstrates that disputes over urban space are also revealing of the degree of autonomy and capacity of the subjects who engaged in them. More than that, these disputes have shaped aspects of the identity and culture of the Chilean working class. Such an argument is highlighted when we observe the practice of tomas, collective land takeovers, social contestation and the struggle for better living conditions that became widespread to the point of creating tension among workers, parties, unions and the State itself.

6The third chapter turns the narrative to the governments of the Christian Democrat Party (Partido Demócrata Cristiana – DC) and of the Popular Unity (Unidad Popular – UP). In “Revolution time and turn: national transformation projects” the emphasis is on the expectations for changes shared by most of the population amid the political and electoral effervescence in the 1950s to the 1960s. The projects headed by both political groupings signaled the need for structural changes in society and the economy, with the state as its main agent. However, the semantics of “revolution” used by these parties had an ambiguous character. Under the motto “Revolution in Freedom”, the DC was able to join broad popular sectors by having them integrated into the institutional sphere and the social rights universe. On the other hand, the legitimacy of its government was shaken by the adoption of repressive policies against strikes and tomas. In other words, the idea of promoting the integration of the so-called marginalized under the pretext of setting the foundations of social harmony excluded those from below from participation in the process of radical change. The Popular Unity (UP), a coalition headed by the Socialist and Communist parties, attributed to the “revolution” a definition based on confrontation with capital as a strategy to surpass the Christian Democrats’ reformism, to make the transition to socialism through an institutional path, and finally to transform Chile’s socioeconomic structure. In addition, the revolutionary process proposed by the UP was based on a “pro-worker (obrerista) discourse composed of cultural elements taken from the history of the workers, contributing to the consolidation of a popular identification with its political project” (p. 220). The core of the book—the emergence of the working class as a political subject—is revealed throughout the fourth and fifth chapters. “Trabajadores al poder!: from proposed participation to lived participation” puts the electoral triumph of the UP in 1970 as the mark of this process. The UP and its obrerista discourse emphasized the importance of workers’ active participation and their organizations in labour and decision-making spheres of national interest. Labor’s direct involvement in socialized and mixed-ownership companies opened “the possibility of mobilization and organization in the factories” and “resulted in transformative practices of the working conditions and of the political consciousness of the workers” (p. 246). However, the practical application of this model faced some obstacles. The conflicts between workers and managers in the productive sphere not only hindered the formation of more horizontal ties in the productive space, but also strengthened demands for participation beyond the shop floor. The social pressures that then emerged tested the “limits of consensus” that the UP government sought to establish. But they likewise produced “new experiences of organization and struggle,” at the same time that “the sense of autonomy and class struggle also strengthened their revolutionary consciousness” (p. 297). Such issues are the subject of the chapter “Create, create popular power!”, which concludes the itinerary of the book. The rise of “revolutionary consciousness” led to the radicalization of ideological clashes, in a scenario of growing anticommunist opposition among conservative and middle-class sectors. The Supply and Price Control Boards (JAPs), a measure taken by the government to contain the crisis in the supply and distribution of goods, quickly spread among pobladores and various categories of workers. The cordones industriales and the communal commands that emerged in the heat of these demands, as well as grassroots unionism, broadened the spectrum of class solidarity beyond the shop floors. And, doing so, they fostered mobilization around a political project rooted in socialism, which resonated with the workers and their material demands. Though the divisions within the left regarding the paths of the socialist project raised uncertainties in 1973 about the gains obtained and the gains expected, there was some hope to reverse “the ending of the Chilean revolutionary process” (p. 371), according to a letter sent to President Salvador Allende on the threshold of the coup that deposed his government and established a military regime that terrorized the country for almost two decades.

7O protagonismo popular does not consist of a bunch of passionate descriptions of the labour world. It is a dense historical analysis, committed to the task of critically revealing the multiple dimensions of the political and the social, and revealing the ways in which they have shaped and were shaped by the experiences of the workers. The dialectic relationship between agency and structure is important to an historical interpretation sensitive to the deconstruction of the supposed passive character of the Chilean revolutionary process. The attempt to recover its dynamics from above and below reveals a much more complex historical process than theoretical models suppose. The ability of Márcia Cury to carry out, in practice, the art of demonstrating and putting the results of evidence which characterizes historiographical research, makes her book indispensable for those interested in Latin America, the history of Chile and, why not, the history of Brazil. After all, this study invites us to approach, compare and promote integrated analyses of these national histories, in order to open new paths to understanding relations between the State, the working class and the labour movement in the twentieth century. I leave the conclusions to the reader.

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1 Eric Hobsbawm, Era dos extremos. O breve século xx: 1914-1991. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2005 [1995], p. 109-110.

2 The popular protagonism: experiences of class and social movements in the construction of Chilean socialism (1964-1973). Edición en español: Márcia Cury, El protagonismo popular chileno: Experiencias de clase y movimientos sociales en la construcion del socialismo (1964-1973), Santiago du Chile, LOM Ediciones, 2018.

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David P. Lacerda, « Márcia Cury, O protagonismo popular: Experiências de classe e movimentos sociais na construção do socialismo chileno (1964-1973) », Cahiers des Amériques latines, 91 | 2019, 204-208.

Référence électronique

David P. Lacerda, « Márcia Cury, O protagonismo popular: Experiências de classe e movimentos sociais na construção do socialismo chileno (1964-1973) », Cahiers des Amériques latines [En ligne], 91 | 2019, mis en ligne le 27 septembre 2019, consulté le 15 novembre 2019. URL :

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David P. Lacerda

PhD en histoire sociale, post-doctorant au département d’histoire de l’Universidade Estadual de Campinas (Brasil)

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Les Cahiers des Amériques latines sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution – Pas d’utilisation commerciale – Pas de modification 4.0 International.

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