Beyond such parallels, striking as they are, there are deeper, and more important methodological connections between Marx and Guzmán’s work. Like The Eighteenth Brumaire, the film is made after the fact, from 1975-9; so, it, too, is a near-term retrospective, set off from the events by only a short time. As with The Eighteenth Brumaire, the end—the coup—introduces the film and haunts every moment of it. The “players” are also social, and mainly, political forces: Allende’s Popular Unity coalition; the so-called Opposition, with its own coalition of center, center-right, right-wing, and extreme right parties; the military, whose class composition and class character are no straightforward matter, etc. Like The Eighteenth Brumaire, as well, the film has little political substance in a more familiar sense of doctrines and programs and polemics: it does not argue for socialism on the merits. Instead, it isabout how power works—how to get it and how to lose it. Significantly, just as in The Eighteenth Brumaire, The Battle of Chile does not represent power as residing wholly with the armed forces. Rather, in both works, power moves in multiple directions and has multiple lines of force.[11] [open endnotes in new window] We learn from each, if in different ways, that power must have a base of support in the population—or, at least, those wielding the power must have neutralized (politically) large segments of the population that might have challenged that power.

Historians have long criticized Marx’s method of doing history, targeting it for its alleged determinism, for its reliance on what Engels in his 1885 introduction referred to as “the great law of motion of history”—that is,

“the law according to which all historical struggles, whether they proceed in the political, religious, philosophical or some other ideological domain, are in fact only the more or less clear expression of struggles of social classes.”[12]

If The Eighteen Brumaire has survived as a scholarly object of study into the present, it is largely because it won a new lease on life for its “literary qualities” and not for either its historical method or for its content. But in organizing and activist circles, The Eighteenth Brumaire is seen as a model—a method—of how to analyze the present political conjuncture with an eye toward intervening in it. I think The Battle of Chile could be used similarly.

It is hard to see in these two texts about revolutionary failure any sense of hope or optimism; they are made with, and saturated by, knowledge of defeat and death. But the methods of both texts also offer up an alternate reading in the cracks of historical inevitability. What if, inspired by the example of The Eighteenth Brumaire, we were to read The Battle of Chile not principally as a historiographic document, nor even as offering a method of making historical films, but rather in more prospective terms as an organizing primer, an aid in understanding, say, when and how to organize a general strike? This requires the peculiar strategy of moving backwards into moments of historical flux, when the lines of power were not solidified. “Give us guns! The Army is coming! We will defend you!” say Allende’s supporters throughout Parts I and II. What if Allende had done this? We wonder about the counterfactuals that emerge in watching The Battle of Chile. The exercise of popular power requires strategic thinking about the push and pull of social and political forces. It requires constant re-orientation to counter the disorientation(s) of living in the present, to counter the way that the underlying dynamics of politics may not appear to people so clearly.

This is not a problem unique to Guzmán’s time, or to Marx’s; it lives with us still. Many people who were not alive yet or too young at the time would like to believe that if they lived during the era of the Civil Rights Movement, they would have joined the movement; that they would have believed that change was possible and imminent; that, with some work, the balance of power could be shifted, that the time was ripe. But, of course, in most cases that is false. The difficulty of living in history is that, in the present, one does not have the retrospective clarity characteristic of looking back on events long past.

This difficulty is marked in the recent political slogan, “Never Again is Now,” which emerged in organizing against Trump’s U.S. immigrant detention camps.[13] The phrase “never again” refers to the Holocaust; it affirms a commitment to act sooner rather than later in the face of a new fascist threat. To dub the detention camps concentration camps and to propose that now is the time when the fascist threat is upon us is, I think, an attempt (some would say an overblown attempt) to counter the disorientation of being in the unfolding of history. If the balance of social forces were transparent, if appearances could be trusted, we would not need such a shorthand that attempts—in four words—to lift us out of the disorienting flow of the present and give us the “Now” anew. The Battle of Chile aims at this problem exactly, though it takes far more than four words to make its point.

Mechanics of historical change

The subject of the first two parts of The Battle of Chile is how the coup became possible. We often talk loosely—perhaps as a shorthand—about coups as if the coup plotters got together in some back room, decided they had had enough of the status quo, and then—from morning to night—take state power. Perhaps even the subtitle of this film—“the struggle of a people without arms”—gives this impression, as if it was the people—regular people—on one side and the armed forces on the other imposing its will (as if it was the military’s guns alone that was the source of its power). Might makes reality.

In The Battle of Chile, it is significant that the film begins with the end—with the military’s bombing of La Moneda Palace on September 11th 1973. The bombing comprises the film’s credit sequence, with the sounds of airplanes and explosions preceding the first image. The opening montage lasts about 50 seconds and shows the palace, in a series of six high-angle long shots, being hit by bombs and subsequently catching fire. The montage ends with a super-imposed title card, “Part I: The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie”; now the film proper will begin. This opening sets up a kind of suspense structure where we know the ultimate result: the coup. The question raised within the first few minutes is: how did the coup become possible in Chile, until then the oldest, most stable democracy in Latin America?

After the credit sequence, which is in a sense a flashforward, the film will move back in time—roughly six months—to the period of street demonstrations that took place in the build-up to the parliamentary elections of March 4, 1973. Then, it will proceed forward in time, chronologically.

Crowds on both sides. [Left] From the first post-credit sequence of Part I: Popular Unity demonstration. March 1973. [Right] Opposition demonstration, March 1973. From The Battle of Chile, Part I (Patricio Guzmán, 1975-79).

As it proceeds chronologically, the film will adopt a peculiar dialectical structural pattern that will alternate back and forth between segments depicting the street demonstrations of two opposed political coalitions: Popular Unity, which supports Allende; and the Opposition, which must receive more than 66% of the vote in order to realize its main objective—namely, the impeachment of Allende. The film represents each side with a combination of crowd shots and person-on-the-street interviews.[14]

Interviews with supporters of Popular Unity and with supporters of the Opposition. [Left] Popular Unity person-on-the-street; [Right] Opposition person-on-the-street. From The Battle of Chile, Part I (Patricio Guzmán, 1975).

The Popular Unity coalition is made up primarily of smaller political blocks including the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, the Radical Party, Popular Unitary Action Movement (MAPU). The Opposition is comprised primarily of the Christian Democrats (led by the former President Eduardo Frei), the National Party (led by the former president, Jorge Alessandri, and Sergio Jarpa), the Radical Democracy Party, and the Radical Left Party. The first twenty minutes of the film alternate between these political forces, giving each approximately the same amount of screen time, about seven minutes each.

Structure of the first 20 minutes of Part I. Screen time equally divided between Popular Unity and the Opposition.

While at this point the pattern is dialectical and thus treats the two opposing political forces as coherent entities, of course there are internal disagreements between the parties that comprise each coalition. Those political differences come to take on special importance in the case of Popular Unity, first, because the internal conflicts (between the ‘reformist’ wing and the ‘revolutionary’ wing) that intensify in 1972 put pressure on Allende’s state, and second, because the conflicts reflect an argument about strategy and tactics whose resolution overdetermines the course of events. [15] These conflicts will be taken up in more detail below.

Part of what is so striking in this opening is the film’s representational symmetry in the presentation of both sides: each has its crowds; each has its individuals, though they are not spokespeople or leaders, for the most part. Depicting politicized masses as marching crowds making demands on the state is a familiar cinematic trope, but these crowds are usually comprised of left political elements protesting the state, making demands of the state, registering their disapproval of the state. In The Battle of Chile, there are crowds and there are ordinary people on both sides of the political conflict. But although the screen time is roughly evenly divided between the sides in the first 20 minutes, the emphasis is not. The interviews with the supporters of the Opposition are of special significance here.

Guzmán asks individual Opposition demonstrators: “What is your position on the elections of this Sunday? What do you think about the future? Do you believe in the electoral road or in another road? The four people to which he puts the last question, do not hesitate: the electoral road always, they affirm confidently, despite their evident disgust with “those dirty communists,” as one demonstrator puts it.

From four of the seven person-on-the-street interviews with Opposition marchers. Among the questions the interviewer asks in these four interviews is: “Do you believe in the electoral road or in another road?” From The Battle of Chile, Part I (Patricio Guzmán, 1975).

This sets up the film’s basic problematic: How did it come to pass that the average (largely middle class) citizen supporters of the Opposition came to accept the coup? Despite the film’s seemingly partisan tilt, this is the real question that frames the first two parts of The Battle of Chile. The film—in these first two parts—will try to account for how this sector of the population abandoned its basic commitment to democratic norms as a consequence of the events on the ground.[16] Those events, it is suggested, shifted their consciousness and allowed them to justify—to themselves—the necessity of the coup. These first two parts are, in effect, the story of how the coup was legitimated; this is a story about politics, not about brute strength.

The Battle of Chile’s framing political question is close to the one that frames The Eighteenth Brumaire: Marx writes,

“It is not enough to say as the French do, that their nation has been taken unawares. A nation like a woman is not forgiven the unguarded hour in which the first rake that tries can take her by force. The riddle will not be solved by mere phrases that merely state it in other terms. What needs to be explained is how a nation of 36 million can be taken unawares by three common con-men [Louis Bonaparte, the duc de Morny his half-brother, and the minister of Justice Rouher] and marched off unresisting into captivity.”[17]

The March parliamentary elections gave the Popular Unity coalition 43% of the vote, which denied the Opposition the 2/3 (66%) majority it needed to impeach Allende. The voice-over narration announces that with this electoral defeat the electoral phase comes to an end, and the strategy of the coup begins to take shape.

The five chapters titles from The Battle of Chile, Part I (Patricio Guzmán, 1975).

That strategy has five planks, all numbered in text on screen: 1) Hoarding and the Black Market; 2) Parliamentary Boycott; 3) Student Disturbances; 4) The Offensive by Employer’s Organizations; 5) Copper Strike. These episodes will frame the heart of Part I. Each strategy of the Opposition sows confusion and instability, and aims at winning another layer of the population to the Opposition’s side. In this sense, the strategies are oriented toward impacting the “optics,” and thus mobilizing and de-mobilizing certain sectors of the population. For each strategy of the Opposition, the film reveals the gap between how things appear and the underlying forces at work.

For example, in the first strategy, “Hoarding and the Black Market,” business interests and small shopkeepers, angry with the government for implementing price controls and restrictions on exports, began hoarding goods in warehouses where the goods were allowed to rot and/or selling the goods on the black market.

[Left] Hoading. [Right] A volunteer organizing rationing. From The Battle of Chile, Part I (Patricio Guzmán, 1975).

The intention was to empty store shelves of products, thus producing shortages. The optic of empty store shelves has long been employed to discredit mostly leftist governments.[18] The calculation in the Chilean case was that this would shift popular opinion as it would demonstrate that, practically, Allende’s government could not meet the needs of the population. In response to the hoarding, supporters of the government—with the assistance of a government minister assigned to help with coordination—organized themselves into neighborhood-based local councils for provisions and prices (JAPS) comprised of workers, housewives, residents, etc. They took possession of hoarded goods when they could and organized the distribution of provisions (including those produced by nationally-owned food producers), selling them at cost.

In the case of the fourth strategy (“The Offensive by Employer’s Organizations”), employer organization leaders escalate their rhetoric against the state and begin to organize stoppages and boycotts designed to hobble production in state-owned and state-run factories. The employer organizations justify their actions by citing government failure to resolve problems around pricing, tariffs, and spare parts shortages. In a particularly illustrative sequence, a leader in the National Confederation of Owners of Taxibuses and Autobuses addresses a huge convention crowd from a stage. His total conviction and his language—which coopts familiar terms and phrases of leftist political discourse and is captured by The Battle of Chile in close-ups—make his speech surprisingly compelling, and thus disorienting. Listen to him:

“We can’t keep on patching and mending and wearing ourselves out,” he says. “The vehicles have gotten old and the bent back of many of the owners have grown old too! Generations of them! It’s a matter of filling the pots, of surviving, of holding out, of being able to save this sector, because with that we are saving the jobs of millions of people who have faith and confidence in this working man, in this ill-treated transporter. He is the person who is actually building Chile! He is the true revolutionary! Who can deny that the moment has come for the entire transport sector—without distinction, fighting on one platform—to propose this national stoppage!”

In effect, he is arguing for the work stoppage of the transport sector on the same grounds that people typically argue for workers’ strikes (i.e. it is a matter of putting food on the table and, anyway, the transportistas actually add value to the society). Rather than rejecting outright Allende’s revolutionary, transformative project, the speaker happily claims the radical mantle, re-signifying the left’s rhetoric and remaking small business owners into hard-working, beleaguered, under-appreciated victims of an inept and oppressive government.

Within each of these episodes, The Battle of Chile will build a cause-effect chain by oscillating back and forth between the destabilizing assaults of the Opposition and the responses and counter-attacks of Popular Unity. Judging from the structure of the film, the fifth and most significant of the strategies pursued by the Opposition is the strategy of the “Copper Strike.” I would like to focus on this episode because it constitutes a particularly stark example of how the film invites a certain kind of disorientation as a form of training in strategic thinking.

Copper strike

In the fifth strategy of the coup, “Copper Strike,” the copper miners at the nationalized El Teniente copper mine go on strike for economic reasons. The voice-over narration that begins the episode explains that the strike advances the interests and agenda of the Opposition (even if the striking workers are not actively seeking this outcome): “For the first time, the Opposition wins over a sector of the proletariat. In the El Teniente mine, a group of workers go on strike for economic reasons. Traditionally well paid, the copper miners are the aristocracy of Chile’s workers. For the Opposition, the aim of the conflict is to paralyze the mine. 20% of Chile’s earnings are produced here.” The camera surveys the energetic crowd of striking workers chanting a variation on the familiar slogans from Popular Unity demonstrations including “El pueblo, unido, jámas será vencido. [The people, united, will be never be defeated].” Reprising that cry, these strikers chant: “Teniente, unido, jámas será vencido. [Teniente mine, united, will never be defeated.” When the leader of a faction of the workers in support of the Popular Unity government proposes that all the strikers return to work, he is met with the chant: “Politics no! Politics no!” The implication is that the strikers are striking as workers, independent of the state; they are holding the state—regardless of its stated commitments to their interests—accountable for promises that have yet to materialize.

This sequence is deeply disorienting, and in a way that is characteristic of the structure of Part I. While the film’s voice-of-god narration proposes that the striking workers are privileged antagonists, hastening the demise of Allende, assisting in the coup—the crowd that we are seeing on the image track, in effect, declares itself to be the people. It wants to be heard. It wants what the socialist government promised. From a certain point of view, it might seem that the strikers are pressuring the state from the left, and refusing Popular Unity’s nationalist appeals for unity against first-world interventionism. Who can side against these legitimate strikers? They are bona fide workers, after all. And the force of their protest is palpable. The film has put the spectator in an awkward position. All the iconicity of this crowd—everything commonly associated with the strike, with the dignity of labor, with the legitimacy of withholding it, with the tyranny of the state, with the righteousness of organized worker masses—all of this must be reassessed in light of the narration. Word versus image. Instruction versus spectacle. Things are not as they seem. Or, to put it in the terms of The Eighteenth Brumaire,

“Tradition from all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they appear to be revolutionising themselves and their circumstances, in creating something unprecedented, in just such epochs of revolutionary crisis, that is when they nervously summon up the spirits of the past, borrowing from them their names, marching orders, and uniforms in order to enact new scenes in world history, but in this time-honoured disguise and with this borrowed language.”[19]

Marx’s insight applies as much to strikers who reach for the favored chants of Popular Unity, as it does to Guzmán himself, who has no choice but to borrow from cinema’s repository of revolutionary imagery and try to re-signify its meaning.

But we can go deeper: how to characterize here the relationship between the introductory voice-over narration and the synchronous images? In some sense, the verité images illustrate the narration: The strikers are allowing themselves to be used by the Opposition.  The images certainly do not contradict the voice-over narration; this is not a case of counterpoint. And yet, the rhetorical force of the images is undeniable. By presenting them—by showing us energized, disciplined, striking workers that are so similar to images from across the history of left political filmmaking—the film “infects” us a bit with this disorientation, and thus inoculates us. If the choice of material were more stark, melodramatic, Manichean, caricatured—i.e. if the crowd were less convincing, if the speaking organizers of the strike seemed more cynical or less earnest—the sequence could not invite disorientation because it would be clear to the viewer that the strikers are enemies and their movement astroturfed. But the disorientation of the sequence as it has been filmed and edited invites the exercise of strategic thinking.

The film forces one to think hard about the significance of the copper strike within a broader context. The strike has been delinked from the standard contexts in which it is encountered (i.e. the fight with a capitalist boss). The viewer cannot fall back on the familiar tropes. Actually, she can now see the strike as a tactic. By itself, the strike has no pre-determined political affiliation with leftist politics: it can be wielded by the political right just as well as by the political left. One must think strategically on a case-by-case basis. What is the meaning of a strike in the unusual case in which socialists control the executive branch? What sort of strategy is this strike? What kind of pressure does it exert? How and on whom? How can its effects be neutralized without losing the support of its participants or its sympathizers?

A few minutes later, in one of the most striking person-on-the-street interviews of the film, an interviewed striker himself displays an emblematic disorientation. The sequence begins with two street-level shots of a crowd of hyped-up strikers marching through the streets. From off-screen, an interviewer asks a first demonstrator, “why are you striking?” He responds matter of factly, “We’re demanding the 41% that the [state owned] company owes us.” “How many days have you been on strike?” the interviewer follows up. “It’s been 21 days now.” “What’s going to happen?” “It will have to be settled today or tomorrow,” he replies.