Beyond the Vanguard: Grassroots Movements and the Making of Revolutionary Chile

Marian Schlotterbeck is an assistant professor of history. Her project, which explores revolutionary change in 1970s Chile, was awarded an ISS Individual Research Grant in 2015. She provided this update in November 2016.

What motivated you to pursue this project?

This project started by asking a very simple question: what did revolutionary change look like in 1970s Chile? From there, I started to consider how to conceptualize revolution as something more than the seizure of state power. In so many cases, revolutionary change takes the form of quotidian transformations in people’s everyday lives.

What would you say is the most important thing to understand about Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria?

Like the Black Panthers in the United States and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the Chilean MIR was more than merely a militant organization. One of the book’s central arguments is that the MIR functioned as a mass social movement in Concepción during the Popular Unity years. Despite its rhetoric, the party that wanted to be the vanguard of a revolution became a vehicle for diverse sectors of society to implement their own visions of revolution and enact social justice.

Through a local study, it is possible to see the complex working through of different notions of politics, democracy, and revolution.  The Nixon-facilitated 1973 military coup sought to overturn not just a socialist President and a democratic transition to a socialist economy, but also the decades-long struggle of working peoples for full inclusion and citizenship rights. Rather than consign these projects to defeat, I recover and reassess radical projects for popular sovereignty that affirm both the transformative potential of democracy and the ability for people to be agents of change. In this sense, long-term changes cannot always be measured by immediate political victories, but rather, in the capacity for long-term social transformation. Understanding this history enables us to comprehend the present-day challenges that students and other activists face as they seek to envision new social contracts.

How has your project progressed since you received an ISS Individual Research Grant? What notable or surprising findings can you share at this point?

Traveling to Santiago, Chile in August 2015 with the support of the Institute for Social Sciences allowed me to attend the 50th anniversary commemorations of the MIR’s founding in 1965 complete and to research for my epilogue on the meaning and memory of radical politics in 21st-century Chile. I want to end my study in the present by comparing how the 1960s generation remembers its activism today and how a younger generation “remembers” this same history by appropriating the revolutionary iconography and ideology of the MIR.

The oral histories that form the core of my book are, necessarily, the stories of survivors. Decades of political and social repression succeeded in dismantling the physical sites that had bolstered leftist political traditions—universities, shantytowns, factories—but failed to dismantle the meaning of grassroots participation for local activists. Oral histories reveal that grassroots activism associated with the MIR empowered people to imagine a different role for themselves and it is this story which lives on in local popular memory.

The ethnographic present of my interviews suggests the importance of re-evaluating past political practices and grassroots organizing. State terrorism curtailed a very rich debate happening in the 1960s and 1970s about democratic participation. These unresolved questions re-emerge today as young people in Chile and around the world debate the relationship of citizens within a democracy. In their efforts to redefine political practice, it will be important to move beyond the limitations of past political forms and to realize that change happens not just through the state and formal politics, but also from an organized citizenry. In this sense, the usable past of the MIR is its grassroots empowerment rather than its vanguard politics.

What is the next step?

In the last 15 months, I have been fortunate to receive substantive feedback from colleagues in the UC Davis History Department, the Davis Humanities Institute faculty fellows, and most recently prominent Latin American studies scholars at a UC Humanities Research Institute (UCHRI)-funded Junior Faculty Manuscript Workshop in August 2016.  I’m currently preparing to submit my manuscript for press review in December.

Learn more about Marian Schlotterbeck at her faculty webpage.