When thinking about the legacy of Mr. Salvador Allende in Chile today nothing seems certain. Everything and anything about this first communist president to be democratically elected remains the question of heated debates and questionability. Looking at the historic surface one can find mostly emotion led beliefs that ignore any serious assessment. Generally, some view him as a dreamer hoping for liberation of enslaved workers while others blame him for wanting to impose the so-called “Marxist” terror of Soviet style. Nevertheless, in order to get any serious answer, it is necessary to search further from the surface.
First of all, there is no doubt that theory of Marx and Engels was highly important in political formation of Mr. Allende. But, Marxism as a theory can be very complex and many who call themselves Marxist can diverge in their orientation in number of ways. Thus, it is very difficult to say that someone was a Marxist if the mainstream term means being placed in the same box with Mr. Stalin. And this was certainly the box to which Augusto Pinochet assigned Allende in his speech after the coup d’état in 1973.
Furthermore, it is important to know how Marx stated that in countries with strong democratic institutions, it might be possible to reach socialism without a violent revolution. Allende strongly believed that these conditions existed in Chile and thus belonged to this reformist tendency inside the Marxist circles – the tendency that became known as social democracy. Allende was never a man who believed in dictatorship and terror. As a matter of fact Allende confronted Stalin on several occasions. He firstly showed solidarity with the dissident Yugoslav Communist leader Tito in his conflict with Stalin, affirming “each people is free to chose its own road to socialism”. In 1968 he condemned the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia as the violation of the sovereignty of a small nation by a great power. His ambition was to be the first leader in history to reach socialism without violence through peaceful revolution, his “Chilean Road to Socialism.”
Moreover, when Allende came to power infant mortality was high, health conditions poor, health services inadequate, malnutrition common, and employment conditions far from safe or healthy. If we take in the account this context we see how a radical doctor like Allende found plenty of reasons to try to reshape policy in a way to benefit the poor. His judgment was that only the radical change would rid the country of the social causes of ill health. This included measures such as agrarian reform, nationalization of foreign-owned firms for financing income distribution and unified and accessible education system. Yet all this would be achieved within the existing constitutional system: the “Chilean road to socialism” would be legal and peaceful.
Additionally, even inside the big UP left coalition existed notable differences among different parties. The President also never really controlled his own Socialist Party, which generally advocated more radical measures than Allende himself thought possible. While Allende hoped to attain majority for further steps the UP radicals called for mobilization of the working class, a more radical Marxist measure, as a way to bring about revolution and achieve the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. But Allende believed in a political democracy as the path to take and on the occasion when Yarur union leaders were taking over the factory he stated: “Successful revolutionary processes are directed by a firm guiding hand, consciously, deliberately—not by chance. I am the president, and it is I who give the orders here”!His role was to lead and theirs was to follow and support his lead. At the bottom, Allende believed in representative democracy, not direct democracy.
Unfortunately for Allende, the growing pressure from below did accelerate and radicalize the Chilean revolution process. Even those industries that were not major were passed to collective worker control and initiated the process that Allende was unable to resist. This reinforced bourgeois anxieties, as Allende was unable to keep his promise to limit nationalization to the large capitalist enterprises. This “worker power” also frightened and alienated the middle class from Allende, the alliance much needed to win electoral majority for socialism. This inability to set the clear boundaries of the social sector and protect small and medium-sized businesses and thus involve Christian Democrats with the UP doomed the Chilean experiment. To make Allende’s case worse, the right, paired with the US interest and money, skillfully played on the middle sector’s fear of Marxist indoctrination thus creating a domestic atmosphere that paved the way for the military coup. Unification of Christian Democrats with the right made UP a minority in the congress. The courts and bureaucracy were still dominated by Allende’s political opponents who made “the Long March through bourgeois institutions” as it now seems – impossible.
It seems that by the end of his life Allende was no longer able to save the situation, himself, his government, and his democratic road to socialism. Maybe his biggest weakness was his overconfidence in his political skills: there is a level of class conflict and political polarization that no amount of political skill can resolve. And even though there is no doubt of the sincerity of his belief in the need to address the real issues of poverty and deprivation, his tragedy was the attempt to combine both democratic principles and his belief in radical social change. Such a radical program as he envisaged requires a strong and united government, a weak opposition, broad national support, and a favorable international climate—none of these factors existed. Yet, more than anything he should be remembered not as Marxista (as Pinochet called him) but for his unbreakable principles and support for an inclusive democracy that did not exclude any political party or ideological perspective and never aimed at denying the human rights to any of citizen. It is exactly his “via chilena” that obeyed to construction of the socialist society under the premises of liberty, sovereignty, democracy, pluralism and freedom of press.
Image Source: Marcelo Montecino