This biography of Salvador Allende raises the question of whether he was a reformist or a revolutionary, and what can be learned from his brief period in office
Victor Figueroa Clark, Salvador Allende. Revolutionary Democrat (Pluto Press, 2013), 164pp.
Salvador Allende is one of the most emblematic twentieth-century left-wing figures. He is iconic due to the infamous nature of his final hours, his death and his powerful final words to the Chilean people as the US-backed coup destroyed his democratically elected government. His final broadcast may be the most honest and painful last words of any political figure: ‘these are my last words and I am certain that my sacrifice will not be in vain, I am certain that at least, it will be a moral lesson that will punish felony cowardice and treachery’ (p.128). This short but punchy biography delves beneath the ‘symbolism of his last moments’ (p.1) to tell the story of his life and the popular movement that he led.
Salvador Allende remains an icon and as such is ‘stripped of context’ (p.1). Victor Figueroa Clark provides that context and helps us understand why the events of 11 September 1973 are so critical to understanding the world today. In doing so, he brings to life the personality of Allende and argues passionately that he was a revolutionary and not just a reformist as many on the left have argued.
Allende’s aims were relatively modest: to pursue land reform, nationalise key industries especially copper, the provision of a living wage for all, to oppose all forms of colonialism and neo-colonialism, and provide social security and health care for all in the name of social justice. More importantly his route to socialism was via the ballot box and built around a coalition of communists, socialists and centre party voting blocs. When in power, he also controversially promoted military figures into his government, which many regarded as the end of his ‘socialist stage’ (p.112), and opposed the extra-parliamentary tactics and approach of the left, as he believed that he could transform the institutions of the state from within. His desire to work within ‘existing structures’ (p.6) of the state, and his wish to work within broad coalitions and consensus marks Allende out as a reformist as he believed compromises could be made with the bourgeois state.
The author delves into Allende’s past and his thinking to make the case that he was a Marxist and his modest aims were only the starting point. Allende believed these changes would mean that the ‘people could be incorporated into every aspect of decision making, in a process of democratisation that went beyond the realm of elections and made the exercise of power a daily reality’ (p.96), and that this would create ‘the revolutionary new man’ (p.97). He believed that he could transform gradually and from within the traditional institutions that had served ‘foreign and elite interests’ (p.98).
To reinforce his revolutionary credentials, Figueroa Clark points to the fact that Che Guevara gave Allende a signed copy of Guerrilla Warfare with the inscription, ‘to Salvador Allende, who seeks the same ends by different means’ (p.80). The reader is then left to make the decision as to whether his ‘revolutionary reformism’ (p.5) should be classed as reformism or revolutionary. Whilst the argument put forward by the author is well structured, thoughtful and passionate, the failure of the Allendismo project in the military coup of 1973 that was organised in the very institutions and structures he aimed to transform seems to underline the reformist nature of Allende’s strategy. The simple fact is that, on 11 September, the left had only fifty men trained and ready for action, with a further trained but unarmed and dispersed across the country whilst the army had 60,000 men at its disposal (p.156).
In many ways, Allende’s success in winning the election in 1970 based on a Popular Unity coalition that had taken him twenty years to build slowly proved that his approach had merit. The election of a ‘self proclaimed Marxist’ hit an ‘exposed nerve’ (p.3) with the US, which had spent vast energy and resources penetrating Chilean politics to prevent this happening. The wider success of Allende’s approach could be seen in the fact that his electoral road to socialism has been, to some extent, successfully copied by other left wing figures in Latin America such as Hugo Chavez and Rafael Correa. Their projects also bear similarities to Allendismo in terms of its commitment to nationalisation, the widening of welfare and healthcare, an anti-US foreign policy approach as well to tackling inequality.
The chapters on the period 1970 to 1973 as well as the coup also provide many lessons and insights for those opposed to the neoliberal project. His election victory quickly showed the extent to which transnational corporations such as ITT, the US government and local elites will go to crush threats to their interests. The destabilisation of the economy, the use of terrorist and paramilitary violence plus the provision of untold resources to anti-Popular-Unity parties, and the control of the media were all tactics deployed to destabilise the regime. At the same time, under the instigation of Nixon and Kissinger, the CIA targeted figures in the military to stage a coup.
Yet, Allende refused to authorise or arm a popular response to the right-wing violence but rather relied on the institutions of the state in order to achieve the ‘peaceful road’ to socialism. It is a reminder that as Saint Just stated ‘those who half make a revolution dig their own graves’. The failure of Allendismo due its compromises with the bourgeois state and its failures to develop a radicalised popular mass movement are the key lessons to be learnt from these events, and were the lessons learnt by Hugo Chavez. The latter focussed on the creation of ‘new mechanisms of popular power’ that were mobilised to defend his Bolivarian revolution against the reactionary forces of the Venezuelan elites backed by the US and the forces of global capital (p.146). This revolution has defied US imperialism as it is ‘peaceful, but not unarmed’ (p.147).
The brutal aftermath of the coup carried out by the Pinochet dictatorship that was forced on the people of Chile by the US is also instructive. It reminds us that the US was willing to sacrifice thousands of lives and democracy in Chile, as it has done on many occasions both before and since to achieve its neoliberal goals. The Pinochet government introduced the full swathe of neoliberal economic reforms that only saw wages return to 1970 levels in the year 2000 (p.136). It also introduced the total destruction of democracy and the death of up to 5,000 left-wingers and liberals. The human cost is truly terrible as the harrowing stories of many of the Chileans who survived the Pinochet regime attest. The hypocrisy of the neoliberal right is only further emphasised by Margaret Thatcher, a friend of Pinochet, congratulated him on bringing ‘democracy to Chile’. The good news is that the author does see, since 2010, the spirit of Allendismo infusing the masses and in particular the youth of Chile, who are challenging the post-coup consensus (p.137).
Figueroa Clark brings Salvador Allende to life in this biography and leaves the reader convinced that he was a man of deep principles who saw himself as a revolutionary democrat. His commitment to his principles and the workers of Chile shaped his every action and made him a man who can inspire huge loyalty and respect on the left. At the same time, the book does leave the reader with the sense that Allende made mistakes, but that there were no simple solutions and the forces ranged against him in 1973 were vast. However, the final and stirring conclusion is that Allende’s project left a legacy for politics in Latin America and provides lessons both in its success and failures that can and have inspired future revolutions against neoliberal capitalism. As Allende stated in his final speech ‘Viva Chile! Viva the People! Long live the workers!’ (p.128).
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