- Interview by
- Owen Dowling
The fiftieth anniversary of the military coup in Chile this past 11 September occasioned a chain of commemorative events throughout the UK. Chilean political exiles, Chile Solidarity Campaign veterans, and other supporters came together to reflect on the violent counterrevolution against Salvador Allende’s democratic-socialist Popular Unity government in 1973, and its legacies — painful and hopeful — in the fascist regime and international solidarity movement that followed it.
A march of homage from the Chilean Embassy, organised by the Asamblea Chilena en Londres, concluded in Trafalgar Square — the historic ground of the Chile Solidarity Campaign’s annual national demonstrations — where attendees, brandishing Chilean, Mapuche, and Wiphala flags, and photographs of the disappeared, received roses with the message: ‘Please take this in memory of our comrades.’
‘Chile: 50 Years of Solidarity and Struggle’, a film screening the following evening at Crouch End’s Arthouse Cinema, organised by Alborada and the Peace & Justice Project, recalled the hopeful popular participation of the movement around Unidad Popular in Chile before the coup — and its effervescent cultural fabric.
In conversation on the documentary ‘The People’s Train of Culture’ (Carolina Espinoza Cartes, 2015) — reconstructing the Allende government’s initiatives to cultivate popular accession to education and artistic culture throughout Chile’s impoverished hinterland, and their prolific fruits — with author Victor Figueroa-Clark, Chilean exile and campaigner Cristina Godoy-Navarrete, and researcher John McEvoy, was former leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn.
Well known for his political commitments to progressive movements throughout Latin America, the Islington North MP recounted his own experience travelling in 1969 throughout Chile, then on the cusp of Allende’s election as President. Having been struck by the poverty of Chile’s rural towns and barrios as much as by its Andean beauty, he stressed the centrality of popular cultural expression in arousing and carrying the hope for transformative change among Chile’s poorest that undergirded Popular Unity’s ascendancy to power:
I think the most powerful message from the film is that it’s art, music, culture, and poetry that make the fundamental differences in people’s lives. […] The importance and the genius of Salvador Allende in deciding to invest considerably in the Culture Train and the culture activities all over Chile made a fantastic difference. Just imagine, had the coup not taken place, what a country Chile would now be like.
An important theme of the evening was the possibility — and importance — of retrieving the luminous cultural inheritance of Unidad Popular’s attempted road to socialism from beneath the ubiquitous horror of the dictatorship that tried to bury it. Following the discussion, Corbyn spoke to Tribune about his impressions of the social movement around Popular Unity, his Chile solidarity activism in Britain after the coup, and what, fifty years on, today’s socialist activists can take from the cultural experience of Allende’s Chile.
Having witnessed the social movement in Chile around the formation of Popular Unity as a young socialist and anti-colonialist, how would you say that the politics and culture of Allende-era Chile have influenced your own politics and vision of the world?
Massively. I’ve never forgotten going to a folk concert on the beach in Viña del Mar in 1969 and seeing the sense of relaxed joy of a lot of people, mostly young, listening to the music of Victor Jara and so many others: the sense of inspiration that came from it, and the way in which, where some people’s political awakening comes through reading and an intellectual understanding of the road to socialism, others’ comes through the sense of inclusion that music and poetry can bring, from which can develop a comprehensive understanding of how things can change.
The film we’ve seen tonight was largely about the ‘Culture Train’ and the whole emphasis that Popular Unity placed on it — which was important. What the film didn’t show, which I would love to add to it, would be some works from Pablo Neruda. Neruda’s family were railway people, his dad was a railway worker, and he was a great poet, a romantic poet in many ways, who didn’t necessarily think of himself as Latin American as a young man, but then he travelled a lot more, learned a lot more, and wrote that amazing poem ‘The Heights of Machu Picchu’, which is about his understanding of Latin American culture.
And so the music of Jara, the poetry of Neruda, Violeta Parra, and so many others has inspired others in Bolivia, in Peru, in Brazil, in Colombia. All over the world now, when people come together, they sing ‘El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido’, and where did that start? Victor Jara in Chile.
And you attended, in 1969, the May Day March in Santiago where the Left parties displayed publicly their coming together as the Popular Unity coalition?
Yes, I was there on the May Day march, and just thought, ‘This is amazing’. Its significance was that Popular Unity was what it says, a unity of the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, the Radical Party, the Christian Left, and so on, which I thought was incredible. And the more I’ve understood of Chilean history, the more amazed I am by the achievement of it.
Because only in the late ‘40s and 1950s — so that was only less than 20 years earlier — Chile had been through a process that can only be described as ‘McCarthyism on stilts’. Indeed Pablo Neruda, who’d been elected to the Senate on behalf of the Communist Party, was forced out of Chile and had to escape over the mountains into Argentina. And elements that later formed Popular Unity had been, in my view, on the wrong side of the McCarthyite stuff against the Communists.
So that sense of unification that Allende and Neruda together brought to Popular Unity was very, very important. I’m full of admiration for what they achieved. I only know what I know from the time, and I was a young man just observing [the political developments], but I wrote it all down and have never forgotten any of it.
Back in the UK in the early 1970s, when you were working for the National Union of Tailors and Garment Workers, did you have any involvement with the Association for British-Chilean Friendship or other pro-Popular Unity British civil society groups?
Yes, a lot of those organisations were active, and I was obviously supportive of them. I was also very active in unions and politics here, and became a councillor in Haringey in 1974, just after the coup, and was able to make sure that we housed a lot of Chilean refugees. I and others were also very involved in international solidarity movements, including particularly supporting conferences in Italy and in France to try and promote greater [Chile] solidarity. And I’ve been involved in solidarity campaigning with people from Chile ever since.
How did you come to learn of the military coup against Popular Unity in Chile on 11 September 1973, and what was your immediate response?
The news first came through that there was ‘trouble’ in Chile. The BBC reported it, Radio Moscow reported it, BBC World Service did, but we were very limited in what we could find out and how we could hear it. But a good friend of mine, a young man called Jim Brown, who’d been in the Young Socialists with me in Shropshire, had got a job with Reuters. He phoned me up and said: ‘You won’t like this, but I know you know a lot about Chile, and it’s bloody awful what’s going on there.’ He kept phoning me continuously throughout as the news was coming in, and that’s how I heard about Allende dying. It was just horrible: obviously the news, but also the sense of powerlessness.
Those of us who knew each other as being sympathetic [to Popular Unity in Chile] then started phoning each other up, and managed to get a demonstration together. We went to the Chilean Embassy that afternoon on Devonshire Street, and when we got to the Embassy, the doors were shut. There were some police there, so we formed a big demonstration across the road and shouted support for the people of Chile.
Then we looked up the building and saw there was this figure standing there; at first, we assumed it was somebody from the Embassy mocking us, but I looked again and realised he was raising a clenched fist. It was Álvaro Bunster, who was Allende’s ambassador and a Communist. Alvaro then gave us salutations; he was effectively a prisoner in the Embassy, he wasn’t sure what his status was by that time. I later met him when he went to live in Mexico City, a wonderful man.
Were you involved in supporting the Emergency Resolution on Chile that was passed at Labour Party Conference in Blackpool in October 1973?
Yes, I was. I was the agent and organiser for Hornsey Labour Party, and we supported that and participated in it. I also knew Judith Hart very well, and the late great Tony Banks, who had been my manager at the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers and who then had gone to work for Judith as a special advisor in the Ministry of Overseas Development.
Judith was actually quite adept at well exceeding her powers as Minister of Overseas Development, and she basically had a turf war with the Foreign Office, which she consummately won — they couldn’t stand up to her — and she essentially used her position as a cabinet minister and secretary of state to give support to Chilean exiles. Tony Banks, as her special advisor, was also very adept at navigating around bureaucracies, and managed to do a great deal to support those seeking asylum.
So we did everything we could, and then when Chileans arrived in Britain, a lot of people, people of every city, were brilliant: Scotland was fantastic, Sheffield was fantastic in supporting and welcoming Chileans.
The Chile Solidarity Campaign office was based on Seven Sisters Road. As a Labour councillor in Haringey, and then as MP for Islington North from 1983, did you have a particularly close relationship with them?
Yes, my offices [as an MP] were there as well, I was upstairs, and they were downstairs, so I couldn’t have escaped them even if I’d wanted to: I was in there every day. They would always ask me: ‘Can you table this Parliamentary question?’ or ‘Can you get somebody else to table it?’ I think it was a very good relationship, I worked very closely with Chile Solidarity, and with Chile Democratico, which was the organisation of Chileans in exile, who persuaded me to go to the Cambio de Mano [the formal ‘handover’ from military to civilian rule in Chile at the end of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1990].
In the 1970s, you were involved in anti-fascist organising against the National Front in London. Did that anti-fascist politics inform your understanding of what was going on in Chile?
Yes, it did. My anti-fascist understanding was obviously of the brutality of the coup in Chile, but also of the rise of the National Front in Britain in the 1970s, and the way you had to not compromise with them.
The National Front organised a march through Wood Green [in 1977] to go up to Southgate; as agent of Hornsey Labour Party, together with Bernie Grant and others, we organised an anti-fascist demonstration. The police were very interested in what we were doing, and we had several meetings with them; they kept asking what we were going to do, and we declined to tell them. Then, I’m sorry to say, the Labour Party Head Office got involved, and tried to force me to cancel the counter-demonstration; I advised them to read the history of Germany from 1925 up to 1933, and the role of the Social Democrats in capitulating to pressure [from the Right], and said, ‘No, we will stop them.’ They said that this might damage our electoral prospects, and I said, ‘Nothing [will do that] so much as the fascists taking control’.
So we held the demonstration. We didn’t completely stop them, but they were stopped in Lewisham a few weeks later; it set the trend which led to the formation of anti-fascist movements, in particular the Anti-Nazi League. We made anti-racism and anti-fascism popular, which was important, and I got a lot of that inspiration, as did thousands of others, from the popular movements in Chile.
It’s now the 50th anniversary of the coup in Chile. You were the leader of the Labour Party, its most left-wing at least since Keir Hardie, and would have known that your candidacy for Prime Ministership was challenging a lot of entrenched interests in Britain. Did the history of the total experience of Popular Unity in Chile inform your thinking about how you might have had to govern in office?
Very much so. We knew that we had to make a cultural appeal and make a popular appeal, which is why I put a huge amount of my energies as leader of the Labour Party into popular campaigning and mobilising people. We did increase the Labour Party membership to 600,000, and we did mobilise a whole generation of younger and middle-aged people to be active in politics. It was like a double life: I would spend three days a week in Parliament, mainly arguing with the Parliamentary Labour Party, and then I’d spend the rest of the week either in my own community or around the country, mainly doing campaigning work.
If you’re going to transform society, you’re not going to do it by bureaucratic manoeuvres; you’re going to do it by popular action and popular culture, which is why, through the Peace and Justice Project, we’re doing everything we can: ‘Music for the Many’, the union membership campaigns, and above all on culture: we’re doing a book on Poetry for the Many. It’s about mobilising popular culture for justice and equality and not allowing arrogant elitism to take over and run our movement.