Remembering Allende

Remembering Allende

His dual commitment to socialism and democracy ought to be a model today.


It’s enough to review once more that last, final black-and-white photograph of Salvador Allende to glimpse the apparent contradictions of his life and legacy on this, the thirtieth anniversary of his death, and that of his Popular Unity government.

Chilean Army tanks and troops were circling the presidential palace, twin Air Force jets ready to bomb it were already in the air and General Pinochet was about to seize power. Accompanied by his young bodyguard, there on the palace doorstep stood the 65-year-old gentleman Allende, the medical doctor, veteran parliamentarian and democratically elected president in impeccably pressed pants and a silk tweed jacket over a hand-knit sweater–with the strange, surreal accents of a steel military helmet on his head and fully loaded AK-47 in his arms. Of these last moments in the life of Allende, Gabriel García Márquez wrote: “His greatest virtue was following through, but fate could only grant him that rare and tragic greatness of dying in armed defense of the whole moth-eaten paraphernalia of an execrable system which he proposed abolishing without a shot.”

García Márquez captures a crucial truth, but one that is partial. Allende is widely remembered only as a victim–of the Chilean counterrevolution, of the vast US covert destabilization program and ultimately of what some argue was his own peaceful strategy. But his positive contributions to history, his bold attempts to redefine the very concepts of revolution, socialism and democracy, and the unique place that he deserves in the annals of the international left remain substantially unrecognized–or misunderstood. Even for a younger generation of radicals, Allende is often but a distant memory, a footnote, just one more entry, alongside Arbenz and Mossadegh, on a laundry list of elected leaders violated by imperial arrogance.

Though most often characterized as the “first freely elected Marxist head of state,” who proposed a “peaceful transition to socialism,” Allende intended something more sweeping. His insistence on the use of democratic means to achieve power and radically reconstruct society was neither a mere tactic nor just a euphemism for minor and moderate reform.

There was no precedent for what Allende was attempting–except maybe in the writings of Marx. Socialism, real socialism, as argued by the Old Lion, would bring with it an expansion and deepening of democracy, not its curtailment or abolition.

Allende believed profoundly in this principle. He explicitly rejected the model of European Socialists, who–even by 1970–aspired to be little more than the liberal face of capitalist management. And though he considered himself a friend and ally of Fidel Castro (especially in the face of US hostility), Allende rejected any suggestion that Cuba or any of the other Communist countries of the time could be a model for his vision of socialism.

Allende saw a third way–in no way to be confused with Tony Blair’s self-declared middle path between corporate free markets and social democracy, but rather an authentically socialist and democratic alternative to meek social reform, on the one hand, and authoritarian “people’s democracies”–Stalinist dictatorships–on the other.

So while Allende insisted on absolute respect for the law and constitutional processes, on no restrictions on freedom of the press, speech and assembly, he simultaneously carried out the nationalization of Chile’s copper mines and 200 major corporations, a sweeping land reform that expropriated monopoly holdings, and a host of other measures that benefited and empowered the poor.

From the outset, Allende’s position in its full complexity was rarely understood by much of the left. When France’s leading revolutionary of the time, Régis Debray, came to Santiago to depose Allende in now legendary and lengthy interviews, the young Frenchman was manifestly confused. In Debray’s rigid thinking, either one was a bona fide armed revolutionary à la Che Guevara or a hopeless reformer following in the footsteps of the ineffectual European popular fronts of the 1930s. Allende had to repeat to Debray several times that the new Chilean government, coming to power democratically, would both respect and enhance democracy while not shying away from radical, socialist reform.

A few years after the coup, another high-profile European leftist finally got it right regarding Allende. The Italian Marxist philosopher Lucio Colletti (who died in 2001 after a disappointing political journey to the right) argued back in the mid-1970s that the left had bogged down in a false and perilous assumption: i.e., the more violent a revolution, the more transformative it must be. Consequently, peaceful transitions–like Allende’s Popular Unity government–were doomed to dead-end reformism. Colletti argued that this facile thinking was itself a legacy of Stalinism and, indeed, had no real roots in socialist experience.

In the three decades since the coup, the criticism most frequently raised on the left about Allende was that he failed to “arm the workers” and that he was too tolerant of an opposition that eventually overthrew him.

The first point is beyond absurdity. Guns don’t materialize either from the sky or from presidential decree. Chile’s relatively advanced and stable democratic institutions made the option of armed revolt about as viable and attractive as it might seem in modern California. If the argument is that Allende, in the weeks before the coup, should have preventively armed his supporters, the follow-up question should be, how? Just as realistic–that is, unrealistic–is the suggestion that he should have disarmed the military.

The Allende government made many strategic mistakes–enough that a coup would probably have been inevitable even if the United States had never engaged in its covert program of subversion (though the American intervention certainly accelerated and paved the way for the putsch). At times the Popular Unity government I worked with was driven too much by a heady voluntarism, a hubris that kept it from making key alliances and compromises. At other moments, the government was paralyzed by its own internal divisions and disagreements. But among these mistakes was certainly not Allende’s tolerance for the opposition or his commitment, to the end, to democracy. I don’t know if historic circumstances would have ever permitted Allende’s vision to triumph. I do know that if he had suspended democracy and ruled by dictatorship, it would no longer have been his vision, nor would it any longer have been a “revolution” much worth defending.

If one surveys the panorama of today’s international left, Allende’s legacy occasionally flashes and flourishes. The arduous two-decade march into power of Brazil’s Workers’ Party, and the unique balancing act of socialist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, draw directly from the lessons of Chile. The anti-authoritarian, egalitarian spirit of new social movements– whether in Buenos Aires or Seattle–reflects the ethos of Allende, as do the recent moves by Argentine President Néstor Kirchner to lift immunity from prosecution of officers of the former military junta. Indeed, anywhere the left is willing to be open, innovative, nondogmatic and imaginative, both realistic and utopian, where it can reject Tony Blair’s New Labour alliance with Dubya’s neocons as firmly and unflinchingly as it denounces the wholesale jailing of dissidents and summary executions by an ossified and dictatorial Cuban state, the figure of Salvador Allende and his self-sacrifice for the principles of social justice and democracy loom ever larger, more inspiring and more worthy of reverence and respect.

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