Socialist Power in Chile and Party Structure
A look at structures and practices of the Chilean Left using translated documents.
Chile finds itself at the crossroads. A presidential election between a dangerous right wing reactionary, José Kast, and a socialist and former student protest leader, Gabriel Boric, is imminent, with the December 19th Second Round Presidential Election currently in a tightening race. Meanwhile, a constituent assembly borne out of massive student led protests is tasked with rewriting the neoliberal constitution imposed by the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.
As we socialists in the US struggle with our own internal debates and issues, we wanted to examine how successful socialist parties in Latin America have organized themselves internally. We translated internal documents from three political parties in Chile: Convergencia Social (CS), Partido Comunista de Chile (PC) and Partido Socialista de Chile (PS). Our focus is not on the politics of these parties, but the structures by which they organize and govern themselves. PS was the party of President Salvador Allende, who was murdered and deposed by Augusto Pincohet in 1973 by coup d'état. PC has even deeper roots—founded by Luis Emilio Recabarren in 1912. CS, a relative newcomer on the scene, was founded in 2018, and is the party of the Aprueba Dignidad coalition’s presidential candidate, Gabriel Boric.
All three are political parties with mass characteristics—tens of thousands of members, parliamentary and municipal representation, and deep, historical roots in the social movements of Chile. These characteristics, and each party’s notable influence on truly important victories—like the convening of a national constituent assembly to rewrite the neoliberal constitution put in place by the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship–make them useful examples for study. The three operate in different ways, with varying degrees of commitment to electoralism, base building, integration in social movements, and coalitional work. Whereas these different tendencies have disparate political homes in Chile, including a multitude of parties and organizations outside of these three, DSA attempts to fit many different tendencies under one big tent umbrella. Although this means that a direct one to one copy of any of the structural characteristics is unlikely to fit DSA’s needs, they are still useful to us in understanding how we can better organize ourselves internally.
The combined centuries of history and proven ability to endure under extreme conditions should be considered as helpful guidelines that the relatively young and immature Democratic Socialists of America can learn from—and perhaps adapt and adopt for its own purposes.
Legend: Red lines indicate voting constituencies, ie. Regional Congresses vote for Regional Tribunals. Solid black lines indicate the flow of party hierarchy. Dotted lines indicate bodies that serve at the behest of the relevant body, ie. Communal Commissions are created by Communal Committees in order to carry out a specific line of work.
A translation of PS’s Statutes, what we would consider Bylaws in DSA, are available here in an abridged format. The party is primarily structured along geographic lines. The foundational body of the party are called “Cells”—organizing bodies centered around specific neighborhoods or other geographically defined sites. The day-to-day grassroots organizing of party members happens here and they may be of varying size depending on local needs and conditions.
These Cells flow upwards into Communal Committees. Communal Committees are not standing bodies, but rather are organized as conventions that take place several times a year and in which all party members in the relevant municipality are able to participate in. This is the highest political authority of the party at the commune (or municipal) level.
Above the Communal Committees are the Regional Committees. There are 16 Regional Committees, which do not necessarily correspond with state defined jurisdictions, plus one Regional Committee that includes all party members living abroad. These committees are elected by the members within the relevant region—depending on membership numbers in the region they may have 22, 26 or 32 committee members. These committees are tasked with providing input on the party’s political program and priorities from the perspective of their regional conditions, as well as producing a list of nominees for elected offices in the region for approval by the Central Committee.
The Central Committee is the national coordinating body of PS. It is made up of 110 members, 80 are elected by region and 30 are elected nationally. The Central Committee approves and adopts the program for the party—which must be undertaken by every other organ of the party. This body also ultimately approves all electoral candidates. The Central Committee may also organize meetings of a deliberative or consultative manner, though in the case of the former the Central Committee may only hold such events when the matter being deliberated on is under the jurisdiction of the body. The other prime responsibility of the Central Committee is to elect, from its own members, both the Political Committee and the Executive Board.
The Political Committee is a 26 member body and is the political advisory body of the Party in between meetings of the Central Committee. It is responsible for steering the party along the lines of the Party’s political program, interfacing with regional leaders and elected officials, as well as intervening in cases where Party work has gone awry.
The Executive Board exists both parallel to, and as part of, the Political Committee. It both guides the Central Committee and runs the meetings of that body but also administers the day to day functioning of the Party apparatus. The Executive Board proposes budgets, and is the first to initiate proposals that would modify the Party Principles, programs, electoral pacts and other internal documents or agreements. Its members are also the primary public face of the Party. Within the Executive Board exists vice-presidencies, some are administrative, like the Vice-President of Political Training (a position that is entrusted with 15% of the Party budget to fulfill their tasks). Other vice-presidencies relate to identity groupings. The Vice-President of Women and Gender Equity is granted 10% of the Party budget in order to improve the participation and inclusion of women in politics and the Party. The Vice-President of Indigenous Affairs also serves on the Executive Board. This position is elected only by Indigenous members of the Party. In either case these positions are replicated at the Communal, Regional and Provincial levels.
Speaking of the Provincial level, the Party does have internal bodies at the province level. They exist sort of outside the rest of the chain of command. The only standing body at this level, which corresponds to official administrative divisions of the state of Chile (think states in the EEUU), is the Provincial Directorate. In each province this is a 6 person body and is elected by all members of the Party within the province. They are tasked with carrying out the Party line in their relevant jurisdiction and this most often relates to electoral work such as proposing candidates at the provincial level.
Directorates exist at the other levels as well, not just at the provincial level. The Regional and Communal Directorates are the executive body of the corresponding geographic division. They are elected by the respective Committee within each division, for example the Antofagasta Regional Committee will elect from among its members an Antofagasta Regional Directorate which will manage day to day Party affairs in the Antofagasta region. Regional Directorates may be 8,10 or 12 members and Communal Directorates are made up of 6 members.
At each level the Directorates, including the Political Committee at the National level, are tasked with creating and administering various secretariats, commissions and departments. These bodies are a mix of administrative and political. Each body may have a Communications Secretary for instance, responsible for the dissemination of Party information. Interestingly, one department is meant to archive and preserve the history of the Party. Other bodies may relate to neighborhood level organizing, such as sports and culture, while others interface with social movements or labor unions. Similar to the concept within DSA of Labor Circles, brigades of workers, both public and private, are organized. Party members within the relevant sectors use these forums to discuss problems, and propose solutions, to the issues all workers face within these sectors.
Outside of the standing bodies of the Party members also engage through congresses, you may know them as conventions. Regional Congresses precede the General Congress by around 30 days. Delegates to the General Congress are elected in proportion to each of the communal and regional bodies of the party. The General Congress is primarily tasked with the ultimate approval of the Party Program and Political Line. Delegates also hear reports produced by leadership bodies on the different aspects of Party work, and all aspects of the Party’s working are under consideration during the period the congress is in session. National Conferences are organized in which the specifics of implementation of the Party Program and Political Line are formulated. The General Congress has the ultimate authority to determine matters of ideological doctrine and also hears appeals for reinstatement to Party Membership by individuals who have been expelled or resigned. The General Congress also elects the Supreme Tribunal, the Regional Congresses elect Regional Tribunals.
Tribunals, both Supreme and Regional, are tasked primarily with two things: Administer and certify all internal elections and ensure the Party Program and Code of Ethics are adhered to. This dual role is in stark contrast to how things operate within DSA. While the Tribunals do not set the exact terms of how elections are to be administered they are required to ensure that the elections are consistent with internal regulations and are administered competently and fairly. In essence this means that all internal leadership elections are overseen by a 3rd party, accountable to membership and not intimately involved in the outcome of the elections themselves. These bodies also serve to investigate grievances, conflicts and instances of members breaking from established norms and requirements of the Party. Again, because these Tribunals sit outside of the standard structure of the Party they are able to more effectively and fairly deal with any matters brought to their attention.
The Socialist Youth wing of the Party is fairly autonomous. The youth wing includes all members aged 14-30. Any dues paid by these members is directed straight back into the youth wing. Socialist Youth leadership are included in each of the Party’s leadership bodies but have the right to speak rather than full voting rights. The Party takes great pains to make the development, both politically and ethically, of youth members a priority.
The Party Statutes lay out a very clear framework of structure that is replicated at all levels. Members elect a leadership body that provides political guidance and that leadership body elects from amongst itself a smaller executive leadership body that oversees the day to day work and administration of the Party. Consultation regarding the priorities and direction of the Party flows both upwards and downwards throughout the Party hierarchy, electoral candidates are proposed from lower levels and approved at higher levels, while the Party Program and Political Line is proposed at higher levels and approved at lower levels. Nothing is approved without grassroots support from the base nor without guidance from elected leadership. Ethical concerns, and conflict resolution, are kept separate from Party leadership.
The other parties, PC and SC, are structured fairly similarly, especially PC. PC differs in that the party does not have a separate body defined in the statues that corresponds to the Provincial Directorates of PS. PC, at the Cell level, also places a greater focus on Sectors (typically meaning specific workplaces) over neighborhood or geographic based Cells, relative to PS at least. Other differences are largely matters of terminology or are not substantial enough to merit note here.
Social Convergence, by way of being much newer, is less developed and sporting fewer members, not to mention ideological differences (SC is broadly of a more Libertarian Socialist bent), can be characterized as having fewer of the party structures outlined above, though what does exist is broadly similar. A notable difference regarding SC structure, relative to both PS and PC, is a greater emphasis on integration with existing social movements and organizations. The other parties certainly engage in this strategy of base building, but for SC it is their primary focus. This is spelled out in their Statutes which define Fronts, which are organs of the party at both the national and regional level and that are formed around terrains of struggle such as labor, feminism and students, among others. The day to day work of party members happens in these Fronts rather than in Cells. SC also places the bulk of responsibility when it comes to developing the Party Program into the hands of thematic Commissions (Housing Justice, Military Reform, Pension Reform, etc.).
Each of the three parties considered here also have a Declaration of Principles to guide their work. In the case of both PC and PS these declarations highlight the historical struggles of either party. PC considers itself the party of Luís Emilio Recabarran and Pablo Neruda. It also makes clear that the ideology of the party, while descended from the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Recabarren and other Marxist thinkers, is primarily a living, breathing thing developed continuously through collective study and struggle. PS, unsurprisingly, mentions its political lineage tracing back to Salvador Allende, as well as the vast debt the current Chilean Left owes to historical struggles, most especially the overthrow of the Pinochet dictatorship. SC, differs slightly, owing to its lack of history. In all cases the strengthening and deepening of democracy is a key principle, all parties consider mass inclusion and participation to be a key aspect of their politics.
The closest document to a Declaration of Principles DSA has is “What is Democratic Socialism?”. This document is much less fleshed out, primarily calling for a different type of democracy, uniting the multiracial working class and winning “radical” reforms.
Code of Ethics
Whereas the DSA Code of Conduct is primarily a list of behaviors members should not engage in, PC’s Code of Ethics puts forth member requirements and expectations through a more positive framing. The PC framing is much more about respect for fellow members and the party. Key points that stand out in the PC Code of Ethics, in contrast to the DSA Code of Conduct are certain ideological or political requirements of members, such as a commitment to ecological preservation, anti-imperialism and Latin Americanism. Another notable point is the requirement of all members to engage in political and ethical development with younger members of the party. While both documents refer to debate and conflict within the respective organizations as a standard part of political life that can be generative, only the PC document explicitly refers to self-criticism as part of that process.
Santiago Constituent Municipal Program
In this section we will analyze the Santiago Constituent Municipal Program, a process that began in order to consolidate the left around a single candidate for the mayor’s office of Santiago. The Santiago Metropolitan Region has a population of approximately 8 million, making it one of the largest cities in the Americas, including nearly half of the population of Chile. In late 2019 70 social leaders signed onto a manifesto calling for a primary to select a single opposition candidate and the development of a political program which would envision a new model of municipal management. Irací Hassler, then a council member for Santiago, would go on to win the primary and eventually the office of Mayor of Santiago, in May 2021.
The development of the program began in earnest in late 2019 and carried on through most of 2020. Through a series of meetings 59 different political parties, unions, social and cultural movements came together to discuss and generate a new model of municipal government which would then be implemented in Santiago. The program rests on 6 pillars: Democracy, Human Rights, Sustainability, Feminism, Transparency, and Plurinationalism. It’s not surprising to see so much importance placed on these concepts, throughout the Statutes, Declaration of Principles, and the structure of the parties themselves, we see these concepts very clearly highlighted as primary ideological features.
The content of the program itself is very broad, including everything from veterinary services to cultural heritage to sports. By engaging with every aspect of life in Santiago the Left is better able to develop roots which reach the entirety of the working class. The focus on democratic mechanisms and spaces for inhabitants to participate in is perhaps the most important part of the program, as far as strengthening the movement for socialism in Chile is concerned. The program calls not for more empty consultative or information hearing sessions with residents, but rather it calls for binding and deliberative participation. This model is reminiscent of the “Political Instrument” conception of Bolivia’s MAS, rather than a traditional political party. Neighborhood organizations, unions, and social movements are the drivers of the political program, which is then entrusted to a political party to implement within the relevant governmental structures.
Plurinationalism, the concept of multiple nationalities constituting a given polity, is often mentioned within the program. Associated most often with Bolivia, Plurinationalism is increasingly at the forefront of Latin American Socialist ideology. The program outlines how this concept plays out at the non-state, grassroots level. The preservation of cultural heritage is prioritized, with resources and decision making powers given to various constituent groups, from immigrants or indigenous communities to inhabitants grouped by geographic location or even age. Rather than a universalist vs particularist approach, the common conceptual framework in the US Left, we see a transformational solution. The choice to frame increased democratic participation as a matter of inclusion (of non-men, indigineous communities, immigrants, etc) rather than a matter of representation only serves to bolster the Plurinational horizon laid out in the program. Whereas within DSA identity groups are siloed away into their own disparate projects, this program calls for inclusion and self-determination within the socialist movement itself, something that is bolstered in the party structures themselves (for example, vice-presidencies for women or Indigenous people).
One other notable aspect that differs substantially from the general political framework of DSA is the anti-welfare framing of Socialist politics in Latin America, which is evident within the program. Despite being very common within the Latin American, and global, left it would be unconscionable to read a DSA produced document that stated hostility towards welfare. At times this is made very explicit, the previous municipal government is called out specifically for relying too much on welfare programs, but this also permeates the entirety of the program. Welfare is instead replaced with a rights based framework. All people, every constituency imaginable, have unalienable rights, or so the program states, and the task of the Left is to defend those rights and support people, at the grassroots level, in shaping society as they see fit. Essentially the program is not a list of goods and services and ways peoples’ lives will be made more comfortable but rather an analysis of what needs to be fixed and transformed within Santiago and how the current government will support, and allow, the inhabitants of Santiago in making their own decisions and doing the work themselves to transform the municipality.
The ideological underpinnings, and the general structure of Latin American political parties, generally rely on the same sort of interaction and engagement with the masses, at the grassroots and neighborhood level, that was used to generate this municipal program. Despite what appears to be broad support for the so-called Pink Tide parties of Latin America within DSA, and even claims of taking inspiration from them, very little of their structures and practices have been adopted by DSA. Some part of this failure to learn from or adopt from these parties is certainly explained by different extant conditions within the United States, but DSA would do well to study how these parties engage with the masses. The common trend of coalitions devolving into turf wars, electoral politics ending at election campaigns except for generally lacking constituent services programs or nascent attempts at socialist machine politics, and fewer resources and labor devoted to base building projects or semi-independent organizations are all areas where DSA, as an organization, will need to analyze and consider if DSA is to follow in the footsteps of the Chilean Left; able to lead the fight to rewrite a constitution, overturn a brutal neoliberal dictatorship, and build a resilient mass socialist movement.
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