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Allende in Chile Today

Nearly five decades after the coup that overthrew leftist president Salvador Allende, the Chilean left is starting to rebuild power. But it still wrestles with the legacy of the bloody defeat of Allende’s democratic revolution.

Marchers supporting the election of Salvador Allende in Santiago, Chile, on September 5, 1964.

In 2014, a new party in Chile called Revolución Democrática inaugurated its central office. One of the first things they did was decorate the walls with a mural. The quote chosen for this mural was from a speech by the iconic Chilean president Salvador Allende: “Since my youth I have fought against prejudice and obsolete political systems. As fate would have it, I have led this Democratic Revolution in Chile.”

Today, Revolución Democrática has become one of the largest parties in Chile. Together with several other political and social actors, it has formed an unexpectedly successful political coalition, the Frente Amplio (Broad Front). This coalition has managed to shake the political landscape of the country, defying several aspects of the establishment consensus and achieving important success in the 2017 elections.

The recent electoral success of the Chilean left gives new weight to the anniversary of Allende’s fall from power at the hands of a vicious US-backed coup. How should this new generation, many of whom lived through neither Allende’s Popular Unity government nor Pinochet’s dictatorship, wrestle with the promises and perils of state power? What lessons should a project like Frente Amplio take from the Popular Unity experience — and what is different today? Though the answers vary among the new Chilean left, exploring them is crucial for ensuring the continuance of Allende’s democratic revolution.

Why Allende Failed

Allende’s vision of a Chilean route to socialism diverged from the then-popular Cuban model of guerrilla insurgency. It attempted instead to bring forth the new economic and social order without breaking from liberal democracy, and while complying with an entrenched legal, judicial, and multiparty system. His government was viewed with skepticism by the Soviet Union, who feared its success could set an example for countries under its own influence to push for more civil liberties. It was also seen with preoccupation by the United States, who saw in it the potential of “socialist contagion” to other countries in the region.

In retrospect, Allende’s government can be regarded as an ultimate test of the limits of any democratic socialist electoral endeavor. Much can be learned from both its initial success and its latter demise.

Nearly five decades after Allende’s Popular Unity government, he remains a universally central figure for the Chilean left. However, the Left diverges in its interpretations of Allende’s fall, between a social democratic perspective and a more radical or traditionally Marxist one.

Social democratic theorists Adam Przeworski and Gøsta Esping-Andersen analyzed the limits of an electoral route to socialism. Przeworski’s view, with Allende’s government as his central case study, is pessimistic. According to him, as socialist parties, especially in Western Europe, decided to compete for power through elections, they were faced with insurmountable problems. One of them was that, since in no capitalist society had the proletariat managed to grow to an absolute majority (and an important segment of the working class would not align itself with the socialists), socialist parties were forced to choose between remaining loyal to their class purism or expanding their appeal beyond a narrow definition of the working class. Thus, as social democratic parties abandoned their identity as the “party of the working class” and became the party of “the masses, the people, the nation, the poor, or simply the citizens,” they also ended up renouncing their essence of class struggle and class identity.

Even when socialist or social democratic parties managed to achieve power through elections, Przeworski continues, they were doomed to face the opposition of capital and the ruling classes. As soon as any reform implemented endangered capitalist accumulation, capitalists could successfully boycott the national economy through a “capital strike” or, as the Chilean example portrayed, by bypassing democracy altogether.

Esping-Andersen shared a similarly gloomy diagnostic on the prospects of achieving socialism through elections. He views the limits of electoral socialism as a call to realistic compromise with the middle classes and capitalist elites. Socialism, as originally envisioned, was not possible through a democratic road. The Left must compromise its programmatic stances, at least in the short run, until the conditions for major changes emerge.

In this interpretation, Allende’s mistake was his uncompromising positions. Allende’s project was doomed from the start, because he attempted to push the liberal state too much, too quickly. In the Chilean context, this interpretation was often translated into Allende’s lack of dialogue with the political center, which was dominated by the Christian Democrats. That party, which was especially strong among the peasantry, initially provided the necessary parliamentary votes to ratify Allende’s government (necessary because Allende had achieved less the 50 percent of the votes) but subsequently supported the coup (with a few noticeable exceptions).

After seventeen years of dictatorship following the coup, the above interpretation pushed Allende’s Socialist Party to conclude that only an alliance with the political center would allow them to return to power. This center-left coalition negotiated an institutional transition with the dictatorship and led the country for the twenty years that followed the regime, carefully advancing only in those aspects that were deemed feasible because they ensured a consensus with the right-wing opposition.

There are several reasons for this Socialist-Christian Democrat convergence and their support for a “democracy of consensus” with the right-wing opposition. A central one was a traumatic acceptance, thanks to the ferocious reaction embodied in Pinochet’s dictatorship, of the limits of what was possible under the democratic path to socialism.

Meanwhile, Ralph Miliband summarized what became the main interpretation of Allende’s fall in more radical sections of the Left. According to this interpretation, Allende´s mistake was his obtuse intent to follow the formal and institutional path of the liberal state, even as conditions changed dramatically:

Allende was not a revolutionary who was also a parliamentary politician. He was a parliamentary politician who, remarkably enough, had genuine revolutionary tendencies. But these tendencies could not overcome a political style which was not suitable to the purposes he wanted to achieve.

Specifically, Miliband criticized Allende’s unwillingness to encourage parallel popular forces that could push forth radical changes. As the president’s ruling-class opponents started to feel their interests being seriously threatened, and as they were losing faith in regaining power through elections (especially after the legislative elections of 1973), class war became inevitable. In those circumstances, relying on the institutional forces of liberal democracy to contain the ruling classes was, at best, extremely naive.

Miliband points to communist leader Luis Corvalán, and his support for a strategy of appeasing the armed forces, as an example of such obtuseness and its failure. Corvalán was one of the main supporters of the democratic, gradual, and institutional path to socialism. When Allende’s government was overthrown, he was imprisoned and could only be released through a prisoners’ swap negotiated by the Soviet Union. After his release, Corvalán and the Chilean Communist Party became outspoken supporters of the insurgent route. The Communist Party unsuccessfully attempted to forcibly remove Pinochet from power and refused to join their former socialist allies in the new center-left coalition as they negotiated with Pinochet’s regime the institutional transition back to democracy.

Over the two decades following Pinochet’s dictatorship, the Chilean left was defined by one consensus: Allende’s government, however heroic, had been doomed from the start. For some, his fate was sealed by his lack of compromise with the political center. For others, his downfall was brought by his lack of support for popular uprising and insurgency.

So, was Allende’s project doomed from the start? And, if so, was it because of its being too radical and unwilling to dialogue with the political center, or was it because of its moderation and refusal to create a parallel insurgent force?

On one hand, those who emphasize the lack of dialogue with the center overestimate the extent to which this was under Allende’s control. Allende tried to reach out to the Christian Democrats on several occasions, but they had no ideological or electoral interest in reaching an agreement and helping the leftist government to succeed.

On the other hand, those who emphasize Allende’s lack of interest in forming a parallel popular force and, occasionally, his active role in supressing such organization, may be overestimating the real strength that such an uprising could have had against the formally trained army — and its allies in the United States government. It is much more likely that such a civil war would have ended with huge bloodshed and the same authoritarian outcome.

Perhaps more important, both interpretations lack a historical contextualization of Allende’s political coalition and project. Allende’s Popular Unity was not the first coalition of socialists and communists to come into power through elections. A few years before, there were three different Chilean presidents from the Popular Front coalition. This coalition included, at its origins, both socialists and communists, and was led by the centrist Radical Party.

These Popular Front governments are credited with having founded several of the Chilean state’s more progressive institutions. For instance, its first president, Pedro Aguirre Cerda, is known as “the father of Chilean public education”; and the Corporación de Fomento de la Producción (CORFO), which instituted and expanded state ownership in strategic areas, was founded by a Popular Front government. A few years after the Popular Front, the Christian Democrat government that preceded Allende played a major role in increasing unionization, promoting social organization, and undertaking a major agrarian reform. In some ways, Popular Unity’s program was the radical continuation of a long process of social and political democratization initiated by the 1925 constitution and developed over the twentieth century.

An important political difference between Allende’s government and those of the Popular Front was their relationship with the center. Particularly, the Christian Democrats, unlike the Radicals, represented an ideological center that saw itself as enacting a different position from both the right and left. In practice, this meant that in Allende’s time, the Left was presented with two choices: creating a coalition with this ideological center that would sacrifice some of the socialist character of their project, or challenging the center, as they did.

What Today’s Left Can Learn From Allende’s Experience

In 2011, Chile experienced its largest social mobilization since the end of the dictatorship. This social uprising was led by the student movement, who protested Chile’s radically neoliberal educational model. These mobilizations embodied a general discontent with the way the post-dictatorship “consensus democracy” had marginalized a growing sector’s demands for the state to take a greater role in ensuring quality health, education, and pensions.

In 2014, the main student leaders were elected to parliament. With them, a new generation that had not lived through Allende’s government nor Pinochet’s dictatorship became major actors in the national debate. The former student leaders managed to build new political parties (such as Revolución Democrática) and form a political coalition, the Frente Amplio, that competed in the 2017 elections, obtaining almost the same number of votes as the traditional center-left candidate and far more votes than the centrist Christian Democratic candidate.

It would be a mistake to explain these results as a radicalization of the Chilean electorate in the left-right divide. There are growing sectors of the population that simply do not identify themselves on this axis (according to the main national surveys, the proportion of people who identify neither as left nor right increased from approximately 11.5 percent to 48.6 percent between 1993 and 2017). The current political landscape in Chile differs strongly from that of Allende. A long and effective process of depoliticization has meant that leftist identity is weak. Unionization levels are extremely low and, because of the work code inherited from the Pinochet era, the unions that do exist are relatively weak. The Frente Amplio arises in the institutional framework of the 1980s Pinochet constitution and a long process of depoliticization. In such a different scenario, what can the newly formed coalition learn from the Popular Unity experience?

Today’s context may be much more like that of the Popular Front than that of Popular Unity. After the mayhem left by Pinochet’s regime, the first political challenge of today’s progressive forces is to construct a process of democratization and to overcome the dictatorship’s legacy. The project of forming a new constitution, developed under a democratic regime and through a democratic mechanism, such as a constitutional assembly, is particularly relevant for those struggles. For this process, even alliances with a pragmatic center may be necessary, as embodied by the Frente Amplio’s inclusion of the “progressive centrist” Liberal Party.

In the long run, the question of the limits of the democratic path to socialism will still have to be answered. Finding a way to maneuver the institutional playing field while maintaining a strong connection with social movements will be the main challenge. Sooner or later, the Frente Amplio will have to find a way to converge with the traditional socialist and communist parties if it aspires to surpass the 50 percent threshold and become a majority. To do this without losing what made them appear in the political arena in the first place is necessary but will not be easy.

The most important lesson from the Popular Unity government is that getting into office is by no means the end of the road. There is still a major question around the feasibility of a radically democratic government once it starts to threaten the interests of the elite. Even a bounded program of social democratic reforms will face ruthless opposition (from outside and inside the ruling coalition).

A ruling democratic socialist coalition will need to be able to lose elections and accept that it will face periods in office and periods out of it. The only way that the conservative opposition will tolerate a transformative program without bypassing institutional democratic rule is if they believe that they may win a future election. In some ways, Allende’s downfall was precipitated by the electoral weakness of his opponents. Once they realized that they were unlikely to regain power through elections, full-blown class war was unleashed.

The long democratic path to socialism will necessarily have to include setbacks and electoral losses. In this sense, a democratic route to socialism needs to make sure that certain changes enacted while in government become the “new normal,” acquiring such levels of legitimacy that even if the coalition loses institutional power, conservative opponents cannot reverse all that has been advanced. Additionally, the political coalition cannot implode once out of government. Being able to accumulate strength both in government and in opposition is crucial. A Frente Amplio government may come and go, but a successful democratic route to socialism must be able to endure.

On September 11, 1973, while the coup was taking place and planes were bombing government offices, Allende managed to give his last speech, broadcasted by Radio Magallanes, before their antennas were destroyed. Forty-six years later, his words and legacy still resound: “They have the strength, they can surpass us, but social processes do not stop with either crime or force. History is ours and the people make it.”