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.