Peter DeShazo announces, at the start of his book, that he will challenge the conventional interpretation of the development of the Chilean labor movement in the first three decades of this century. He argues that “urban workers, especially those of Santiago and Valparaíso were the driving force of the organized labor movement in early twentieth century Chile, and … the role of nitrate workers was small in comparison” (p. xxv). Moreover, he is concerned to demonstrate that anarcho-syndicalists were the “most dynamic and successful” element in the working class until 1927.
There is no doubt that this book is the most serious, well-researched, and important study of Chilean labor in these years. Yet it does not entirely succeed in demonstrating the author’s initial arguments. The book’s merits are obvious. But to the criticisms first.
I do not find the statement (p. 12) that “the vast majority of manufacturing workers in Chile during the early twentieth century toiled not in artisan shops but in industrial establishments” is entirely borne out by the author’s figures. Indeed, there seem to be some contradictions. Table 1.3 (p. 14) shows that in 1925 some 83,779 workers were employed in “industrial” enterprises (defined as employing four or more workers) and only 5,499 workers in “small-scale” firms (presumably fewer than four employees). Yet Table 1.7 (on p. 17) gives a figure of 137,843 Chileans employed in manufacturing (making up 10.3 percent of the active working population). If this is the case, then the 83,779 employed in “industrial establishments” is not such a “vast majority,” given also that at least 15 percent of them worked in firms of between 6 and 10 workers (p. 14). The largest union in 1918 had only 4,500 members.
The author’s discussion of anarchism suffers from an exaggerated view of its ideological consistency in Argentina and Brazil, which he contrasts with the more moderate pragmatic Chilean variety. In fact, the way Chilean anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists behaved looks to be very similar to their behavior in other countries. Moreover, he exaggerates the importance of ideology in the early labor movement as a whole. He writes (p. 247) that “by the early 1920s, revolutionary ideology had become a permanent characteristic of the organized working class.” But there were many other characteristics, and arguably more important ones, of the labor movement that were far from revolutionary.
DeShazo very effectively demolishes the arguments of those who have exaggerated the centrality of the nitrate miners in the labor movement, and, by extension, the role of Luis Emilio Recabarren and of the Federación de Obreros Chilenos and the Communist party. Yet it remains a little difficult to understand, on his analysis, quite why anarcho-syndicalism was defeated so effectively after 1927, and why Communism became the primary political commitment of organized labor. Nevertheless, this book is a model of its kind. It has a clear argument, and is impressively researched. While one may take issue with the argument at some points, there is no doubt that the author has successfully revised our former view of the nature and role of organized labor in Chile.