Chile: The 1810 revolution

On September 18, 1810, the First Government Junta was convened in the country, at a time when, at continental level, the independence revolutions against the Spanish monarchy were taking place. In a new anniversary of September 18 and in the framework of the celebration of the “Fiestas Patrias” we reproduce an excerpt from Chapter VIII “The Revolution of 1810” of the book Marxist Interpretation of the History of Chile (volume II) by the historian and Marxist activist Luis Vitale. The historical analysis from the critical historiography is fundamental to nourish the revolutionary perspectives to new anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist militants, horizons that we build from the Movimiento Anticapitalista and the International Socialist League.

Chapter VIII. The Revolution of 1810

In this chapter we aspire to point out some of the essential characteristics of the revolutionary process that led to Independence. We will leave for the next volume the analysis of the stages of the Chilean revolution and the role played by the political fractions headed by Martínez de Rozas, José Miguel Carrera, Bernardo O’Higgins and other leaders of the Revolution.

Bourgeois democratic revolution?

Liberal historians have tried to present the Revolution of 1810 as a democratic movement inspired by the ideals of the European bourgeoisie. In recent decades, reformist authors have argued that the Revolution of 1810 was an unfinished bourgeois-democratic revolution that began by carrying out tasks proper to that type of revolution, under the leadership of the progressive commercial bourgeoisie, but that unfortunately those advanced men were quickly displaced by the feudal aristocracy that killed the possibilities of capitalist development in our continent.

Both characterizations are based on false assumptions: that Spanish colonization was feudal and that parallel to the retrograde landowning aristocracy a layer of progressive merchants was formed who led the Revolution of 1810 inspired by the bourgeois-democratic program of the French Revolution.

In previous chapters, we have tried to demonstrate that Spanish colonization did not have a feudal character but generated an incipient capitalism, dependent from the beginning on the metropolis. This special type of capitalism determined the emergence of a sui generis ruling class. Instead of structuring a bourgeoisie that went through the classic European sky until culminating in manufacturing and the industry, in Latin America a mining and landowning bourgeoisie was formed, interested almost exclusively in the production and export of precious metals and agricultural products for the world market. The sectors of this bourgeoisie were combined and linked to each other. The miners were owners of estates and the landowners were in turn miners. There were no irreconcilable conflicts between the large landowners and the mercantile bourgeoisie because in general the merchants harmonized mercantilism with the large estates and the landowners opened trading houses in the ports and cities. The Spanish empire had formed a dependent economic evolution, deforming the colonial economy and limiting the possibilities of an autonomous industrial development. The analysis of the economy and the social classes of that time leads us to sustain that in the Spanish-American colonies there was no socioeconomic formation, no material basis to originate a bourgeois-democratic revolution.

The French Revolution and the European democratic revolutions of the 19th century were based on a dynamic capitalist development and the existence of an industrial bourgeoisie interested in eliminating the semi-feudal vestiges, carrying out the agrarian reform and promoting the development of a strong domestic market.

In a superstructure analysis, exclusively ideological, it has been said that the leaders of the Revolution of 1810 were influenced by the ideals of the French Revolution. What liberal ideas did the Creoles put into practice in 1810? Liberal and reformist historians have assumed that the Creoles tried to apply the bourgeois-democratic program that inspired them.

The Creole bourgeoisie adapted liberal ideas to their specific class interests. The libertarian approaches of the European industrial bourgeoisie in struggle with the feudal monarchy were used by the Creole bourgeoisie against the Spanish oppression. The concept of freedom of trade raised by the European industrialists to break the feudal barriers and place their manufactured goods, was used by the Creoles to fight against the Spanish commercial monopoly. In Europe, liberalism was the ideology of the industrial bourgeoisie; in Latin America, liberal ideas were adapted to the interests of landowners, miners and merchants. There was a formal adoption of liberal thought because the Creole bourgeoisie never thought of applying the fundamental programmatic tenets, such as agrarian reform, industrialization and the creation of a domestic market.

The sectors of the Creole ruling class were committed to land tenure and a predominantly export-oriented economy. The Creole bourgeoisie, the social class that led the revolution of 1810, was therefore incapable of carrying out the agrarian reform, an essential measure that historically drives every bourgeois-democratic revolution. It was enough that the peasant and indigenous rebellions of the eighteenth century questioned the territorial property of the Creoles, demanding the return of the lands that the Spanish conquerors had taken from them, for the native bourgeoisie to ally with the representatives of the king in a united front against the dispossessed. In contrast to the European bourgeois-democratic revolutions, which affected the landowners, in Latin America the landowners did not suffer the effects of the 1810 revolution but were its main beneficiaries.

A parallel between the European bourgeois-democratic revolutions and the Revolution of 1810 shows that while the former promoted industrial development, carried out the agrarian reform, they created an domestic market, ensured an independent economic development and a typically capitalist mode of production, in Latin America the ruling class in 1810 did not carry out any of these basic tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, limiting itself to gaining political independence. While in Europe the democratic revolutions meant a profound change in the economic and social structure, in Latin America the Revolution of 1810 did not modify the class structure of colonial society nor did it break the dependent character of our economy. The French Revolution was a social revolution. The Revolution of 1810 was a separatist political revolution, a revolution that did not pursue a radical change of structures but simply a political change. The Revolution of 1810 changed the government, not society. Strictly speaking, the Revolution of 1810 was not a bourgeois-democratic revolution because it maintained a merely export-dependent economy, it did not carry out agrarian reform, nor was it capable of creating an internal market and initiating a process of industrialization. It only replaced a team of exploiters from elsewhere with a team of exploiters from here.

Independence was not “premature”, as Alberto Edwards and Francisco Encina have argued, but the objective and subjective conditions were ripe for the Creole bourgeoisie to take power. Independence responded to the needs of a bourgeoisie that performed only those tasks that could be expected from a social class basically exporting raw materials, whose development had been conditioned by centuries of colonial economy dependent on a metropolis that had not been able to fully carry out its own bourgeois-democratic revolution either.

Legitimacy and armed struggle         

In an effort to iron out the sharp edges of the class struggle, bourgeois historians of the last decades have tried to present the Revolution of 1810 as a legitimizing and peaceful act. It is no longer enough for them to deny the existence of deep causes in the Independence, by asserting that it was convenient for Spain to cut the ties with the colonies, but they go so far as to maintain that the Creoles separated from the metropolis in a peaceful way and respecting the legitimacy of the king. The objectives pursued by this interpretation of history are obvious.

Alberto Edwards, the most conspicuous representative of this tendency in Chile, referring to the Revolution of 1810, writes: “in Chile the bourgeois revolution had been carried out peacefully” (1). In another of his books he affirms: “Thus the revolution could appear to many, within the ancient principles of monarchical law, more legitimate than resistance itself … It was not an uprising against the constituted power” (2). The intention of this analysis that contributes to the formation of a contemporary myth becomes evident when its author confesses: “We have insisted somewhat on the respect for the established order that characterized the Chilean revolution of 1810, because this trait has subsisted in our country through the vicissitudes of a century of republican life” (3). In another paragraph he further specifies his mystifying eagerness and his class criteria: “For ninety years there was continuity here in the legal order and a true political tradition, whose changes or rather evolutions, took place gradually, peacefully, logically, and presented, therefore, a much more European character, than Hispano-American”.

It is not true that Chile’s history has been peaceful. The revolutions of 1823 to 1830, those of 1851 and 1859, the counter-revolution of 1891 and the revolutionary movements of 1924-25 and 1931-32, in addition to the three centuries of Araucanian war, the rebellions, the workers’ strikes and the violence of the class struggle in the mining, agricultural and industrial exploitations show that Chile is far from being that country mystified by the traditionalist historians, as we will show in later volumes.

For the moment, we will deal with the assertion that the Revolution of 1810 was legitimist and peaceful. To support this thesis, Alberto Edwards uses the trick of limiting the Revolution to the brief period between September 1810 and April 1811. The emancipating Revolution does not last seven months but it is a process that in Chile is prolonged from 1810 to 1818. In this period there is a declared war between Spain and the insurgent colony. It is a decade of revolution and armed counterrevolution, of bloody action and reaction.

The argument of legitimacy, that is, the action of the first Juntas in the name of Ferdinand VII, was used in a circumstantial way and responded to a tendential struggle between moderate, reformist and revolutionary Creoles. Analyzing the essence of the events, one reaches the conclusion that there is no legitimist interest in the Chilean and Latin American revolution, but that the strategic objective of the Revolution of 1810 is the conquest of power for the Creole bourgeoisie. Can a revolution that ignores the governor Elío appointed by the Spanish authorities to the Captaincy General of Chile in replacement of the governor deposed by the First Junta be characterized as legitimist? Can a revolution that dissolves the Real Audiencia, the highest court of the Spanish monarchy in the colonies, be called legitimist? Can a revolution that abolishes the Spanish monopoly, decrees free trade and takes charge of all fiscal revenues without sending a single peso to the “legitimate” king claiming aid in Spain be legitimist? Is the attitude of José Miguel Carrera in creating the flag, the national coat of arms and dictating a constitutional regulation that denies the authority of any foreign country to interfere in Chile’s internal affairs, legitimist?

Can a process in which Creoles fight with weapons in their hands from 1810 to the battle of Maipú, passing through the guerrillas of Manuel Rodríguez and the triumph of Chacabuco be called peaceful? Can one speak of a peaceful transfer of power when the Spaniards resist from the mutiny of Figueroa in 1810 to the counterrevolutionary violence of a San Bruno in the middle of the Reconquest?  The ruling classes never hand over power peacefully. They defend their privileges and interests with the full force of reactionary violence, as did the Spaniards in their colonies. History does not record any case of peaceful triumph of a revolution. Chile could not be an exception.  The revolutionary process that led to the political independence of Chile and Latin America triumphed through armed insurrection.

The participation of the people

One of the characteristics of the Revolution of 1810 was the scarce participation of the people. The popular sectors were at first indifferent to a revolution that did not mean social emancipation but the consolidation of their immediate exploiters: the Creole bosses. This situation was partially modified when the Spaniards initiated the Reconquista, not due to a change of the Creole bourgeoisie but to a phenomenon of reaction of the poor sectors against the abuses of the Spaniards during the war. There are, therefore, two main stages in terms of the participation of the people in the process of Chilean independence. The first one goes from September 1810 to the disaster of Rancagua and the second one, from the Spanish Reconquista to the declaration of Independence in 1818.

The first stage is characterized by a very scarce participation of the popular sectors in the Revolution of 1810, except for the response to the occasional sporadic call of José Miguel Carrera in demand of popular support to confront the Creole oligarchy. The movement of September 1810 that displaced the Spanish government and imposed the First Junta did not gather more than 350 people in the Consulate Hall.  In 1810, not even the majority of the Creoles participated, but the wealthiest sector of the mining, commercial and landowning bourgeoisie. The poor Creoles, the mestizos and fundamentally the Indians, remained absent from the process during the first years of the separatist revolution. The popular sectors did not feel that they were interpreted by a movement that did not mean social emancipation but only the conquest of power for the Creole bourgeoisie. The main leaders of the Revolution of 1810 were the direct exploiters of the popular strata. For the latter, the most immediate class enemy was the boss himself, the Creole who exploited them. The Creole bourgeoisie did not seek the support of the masses in this first stage because, in addition to the fear of being overtaken by them, it believed that its own forces were sufficient to overthrow the Spanish authorities demoralized by the Napoleonic invasion.

The 1810 movement in its first phase only had massive characteristics in Mexico and Upper Peru, where peasants and indigenous people tried to combine the struggle for political independence with agrarian revolution. But the Hidalgo and Morelos who fought both against the Spaniards and for the expropriation of the Creole landowners did not abound in the Spanish-American colonies.

The second stage of the Chilean revolution, which began with the Spanish Reconquista, was characterized by a greater participation of the people. The new attitude of the masses in favor of the Revolution was not caused by a change in the position of the Creole bourgeoisie but by a reaction of the popular sectors to the outrages committed by the Spaniards during the Reconquista. The plundering of the fields by the royalists, the repression of the Spaniards against the artisans and small mestizo and Creole merchants, the abuses of the Talaveras regiment commanded by Captain San Bruno, pushed the popular sectors to the side of those who fought for independence. Blest Gana in his novel ” Durante la Reconquista” has incarnated in the “broken” Ñe Camara, skillful in the handling of the corvo, the participation of the Chilean people in the fight against the Spanish monarchy.

The incorporation of the popular sectors gave an extraordinary impulse to the struggle for political liberation. Popular support was the key to the success of Manuel Rodríguez’s guerrilla war. The disguises of this guerrilla, his hiding in the ranches, his incredible escapes and his permanent mobility, were possible due to the effective support provided by the peasantry and the artisan sector.

“Of the campaigns of the National Independence -says Roberto Hernandez- high facts have been referred; but nobody makes particular memories in homage of the broken ones that, with the rifle or the lance, attracted then the admiration of their halves, not leaving another monument of their bravery that the legends of the bivouacs in the army of the Republic. Rotos de marca mayor were the ones who beat the famous Talaveras; and rotos pintiparados were the ones who, shouting ¡Viva la Panchita! faced San Bruno, so feared even by the men with long coats. Rotos peasants were the ones who rode on horses with Villota in Curicó, with Salas in San Fernando and served in Manuel Rodríguez’s montoneras, the popular caudillo by excellence (4).

At that moment in Chilean history, the burden of resistance against the Spaniards was borne mainly by the poor strata of the country. While the better-off Creole bourgeoisie capitulated before the governments of the Spaniards Osorio and Marcó del Pont, some of them even renouncing the Independence in the Act signed on the eve of the battle of Chacabuco, the peasants and artisans joined the ranks of the active resistance, in the cities, in the rural guerrillas and later in the Liberating Army of the Andes.

The official history, along with avoiding the cowardly and hesitant attitude of important sectors of the Creole bourgeoisie, has systematically concealed the role played by the popular strata in the process of political liberation of Chile. It has fallen upon a son of the working class, Luis Emilio Recabarren, the highest leader of the national proletariat, the first attempt to break the historical mystification on the occasion of the centenary of the Republic: “Who gave the cry of political emancipation in 1810? Where were they and who were the characters of the working people who cooperated in that day? The written history does not tell us anything and historians only looked for heroes, the characters, among the families of status, among the well-to-do people. In the monuments that complement history we do not see the people either […]. Did those who defeated the Spanish on the battlefields ever think of the freedom of the people? Those who sought their own nationality, those who wanted independence from the monarchy sought that independence for themselves, they did not seek it for the people […]. So much so that the so-called fathers of the nation, those whose names the bourgeoisie seeks to immortalize, those who on the battlefields led the people-soldiers to fight and remove the Spaniard from this land, once the war was over and independence consolidated, did not even think of giving the proletariat the same freedom that the proletariat conquered for the bourgeoisie, reserving for itself the same slavery in which it lived” (5).


(1)    ALBERTO EDWARDS: La Fronda Aristocrática, p. 25, Ed, del Pacífico, Santiago, 1952

(2)    ALBERTO EDWARDS: La Organización Política de Chile, p. 26 – 27. Ed. Del Pacífico, Santiago, 1943.

(3)    Ibídem, p. 28

(4)    ROBERTO HERNANDEZ: El Roto Chileno, pages 7 and 8, Valparaíso, 1929.

(5)    LUIS EMILIO RECABARREN: Ricos y Pobres.  A través de un siglo de vida republicana.  El Balance del siglo.  “Conferencia leída en Rengo la noche del 3 de septiembre de 1910 en ocasión del primer Centenario de la República de Chile, y dedicada al proletariado estudioso que busca su redención”.  Publisher New York, pages 18, 19 and 20, Santiago, 1910.