by Marc Cooper
The Nation magazine, September
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
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 Garcia Marquez 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."
Garcia Marquez 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
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
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, Regis 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
a 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 Inacio 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 Nestor 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.
Marc Cooper, a Nation contributing editor,
lived in Chile from 1971 to 1973 and was a translator for Salvador