Socialists today should look at the important lessons that can be drawn from Salvador Allende’s 1970 election victory in Chile.
FFor socialists around the world, 11 September marks the day of the overthrow of Salvador Allende´s Popular Unity (UP) government in Chile back in 1973. This was a seminal moment in the history of socialism, and it became a reference point for socialists and social-democrats around the world. But the focus on his overthrow means that Allende and the UP have tended to be looked at as an almost pre-ordained tragedy, or as a case study of what not to do. It was only with the election of socialist governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and elsewhere, that Allende’s government began to be re-examined from a more positive perspective.
The developed world is today similar to the Chile that Allende struggled to transform. Our societies have become vastly more unequal and characterised by the growth of a marginalised ‘underclass’. Transnationals, tech companies and international finance dominate economic policy. The non-coercive functions of the state have been brutally pruned back and their capacity to effect socio-economic reform has been much reduced. After decades of neoliberal transformation, the developed world today is markedly more ‘Third World’ than it was in the 1970s. We endure chronic social and economic crisis, witness the instigation of a new Cold War and are subjected to ‘fake news’ and naked ideological manipulation. We also experience political polarisation, the rise of aggressive far-right parties and conservative movements seeking to channel discontent in ways that benefit the elite.
Allende struggled against many similar issues and eventually brought a socialist-communist coalition to power despite elite hostility sustained and multiplied by US intervention in Chilean politics, media and the military. It is Allende’s successful struggle to bring a socialist coalition to power through elections in a deeply unequal and highly polarised society that makes the Chilean experience relevant today, almost 50 years since his election.
Allende had three basic concerns that intertwined to form the core of his world view, the basis for his vision of socialism. The first was sovereignty, the need to finish Chile’s struggle for independence. Independence was impossible without the means to exercise it and, therefore, without economic development. Economic development was in turn impossible without effective independence. The second concern was democracy, as a good in itself, and as the way to allow society to make effective decisions. Democracy would enable the exercise of sovereignty, but true democracy was impossible under economic inequality. The third concern was what we might call humanism. Like his friend Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, another famous Latin American revolutionary doctor, Allende’s experiences as a medic marked him deeply, and led him to emphasise the state’s responsibility to provide social care, particularly to women, children and the elderly.
This at a time when a third of Chileans lived in shanty towns, where women had an average of six children, rising to nine in the countryside. For Allende, who lived in a Catholic country at a time when few questioned the nature of the family, and where until very recently children born out of wedlock were legally discriminated against, the basic unit of society was the relationship between mother and child. He referred to it as the ‘mother-child binary’, and his social measures put women and children at the centre. None of these was possible within the framework of imperialist domination. For Allende the patria (fatherland) was the Chilean people.
In practice, Allende’s political success was rooted in his constant explanation of how these concepts related to his policies, but also in his profound commitment to the unity of the parties of the Marxist left. He understood each of them to represent distinct, but related historic traditions. He repeatedly put himself on the line for this unity, explaining time and again the urgent need to maintain it despite profound disagreements with those who sought revolutionary purity against either the Right or Left deviations.
Allende’s didactic style over a long period of time created an Allendista support base outside the political parties of the Left, albeit one that he was not able to marshal effectively during his government. Since Allende’s views did not dominate his own political party, so it was unable to provide a home for many Allendistas. The parties of the UP squabbled, and the non-party support had no vehicle through which to express itself. But this political reach did allow Allende’s ideas to eventually become accepted far beyond the organised Left, with the clearest example being the unanimous copper nationalisation vote in Congress under his government. So part of Allende’s importance today resides in what we can learn from his methods.
But the most important aspect of Allende’s legacy is in the ideas that distinguished his socialism from the social-democracy that it superficially shares so much with. Fundamentally, there are two big distinctions: the first is in relation to international relations and the importance of a socialist-friendly albeit non-aligned position; the second is in the importance of participatory democracy in decision-making at all levels. In Scandinavia, participatory democracy was pursued further than elsewhere, but only Sweden and Finland did so from a non-aligned position (albeit one that was friendly to the US and other imperialist powers). Only Olaf Palme attempted to push a foreign and domestic policy that would have effectively put Sweden on the road to socialism, but he was murdered in 1986.
Allende’s concept of sovereignty is also important today because the developed world (and some underdeveloped countries) face a far-right mobilisation that uses nationalism and xenophobia to block socio-economic change. At root sovereignty is about the ability to take decisions and endure their consequences without undue consideration for the interests of ‘others’ external to that society. For a socialist, this means the capacity to take decisions that harm capitalists and the imperialist system, even while understanding that these decisions will have painful consequences. Anyone observing the situation being endured by Cuba, Venezuela or Iran today can see the way sovereignty is exercised, and the costs that it has. In Allende’s day China, the Soviet Union, Vietnam and other socialist countries were heavily sanctioned and their development hindered at every turn.
But the collapse of the USSR led directly to neoliberal globalisation, and the shift of economic power further towards transnational corporations. Free trade agreements contain clauses that give these corporations rights similar to those of individuals, and privilege them over elected governments. This has eroded democratic sovereignty and fortified corporate sovereignty. In Europe, the EU gradually merged its social-democratic legacy with neoliberalism, implementing this new modus vivendi through bodies with little democratic oversight. Again, national sovereignty eroded by a transnational entity.
In the underdeveloped world that Allende lived in, national sovereignty was always conditioned by foreign transnationals and imperialism. In Chile, it was always US companies and the US government that continually cajoled, advised, harassed, threatened and pushed Chilean governments to take decisions that favoured US interests. And while it is important not to exaggerate the sovereignty that working people had in the developed world, they had more influence than in what Allende called the ‘over-exploited world’ where even trade unions were (and are) heavily repressed. Yet even in the most developed countries people are now subjected to similar injustice as free trade deals and privatisations have expanded the remit of private enterprise at their expense and without their explicit say-so. The clearest evidence is that across the major economies banks and big companies are bailed out while social services are cut.
All this has meant that today people all over the world have severely limited ability to exercise political power, to change the way things are done. In Western Europe, the most important decisions are taken by unelected officials, as former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis has so eloquently described in his memoir Adults in the Room. In the US and elsewhere, political decisions are increasingly taken in the courts, evidence that the political system is not channelling popular demands effectively. Increasingly, across the world people cannot influence important decisions other than through protest and riot. Even elite think tanks like the World Economic Forum and the Club of Rome highlight that 18th century political mechanisms cannot effectively govern 21st century economies and societies. Brexit, the election of Trump and the rise of various nationalist forces are partly a reaction against this loss of sovereignty, and the transfer of political and economic power away from the people.
This highlights that socialists need to take up the mantle of sovereignty, as Allende did. Throughout history socialists like Allende were accused of being unpatriotic. More recently, politicians like Jeremy Corbyn in the UK or Pablo Iglesias in Spain have faced similar accusations. Putting sovereignty at the heart of the socialist message can, in some countries, connect current struggles to those of the past, and allow us to explain what sovereignty really is, how nationalists and demagogues distort its meaning and how we are denied it by inequality.
Sovereignty also helps explain why we seek public ownership – since you cannot effectively control something you do not own. Without public ownership we can’t be sovereign over the economy. And it explains why we fight for real democracy, since people cannot make decisions about things that they do not control. Sovereignty can even allow us to critique the market and argue for non-market ways of organising the economy.
Of course, in the developed world, which has undergone centuries of imperialism, sovereignty can be a dangerous slogan that can short-cut to jingoism, nationalism and xenophobia. But this is only the case where we allow others to define sovereignty for us. In a sense, the struggle for sovereignty is not one that has a long history in the developed world, and therefore it can be moulded to its socialist meaning, leaving nationalism to the right-wing. It is also true that sovereignty is intertwined with patriotism and in the developed world this can be dangerous. But patriotism is not nationalism. While nationalism is exclusive and highlights differences from a hostile perspective, patriotism is about celebrating the good and the beautiful, the uniqueness of a culture and history, while recognising the validity, goodness and beauty of other cultures and histories. Patriotism does not have to be restricted to one ethnicity either, as the patriotisms developed in the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and China demonstrate. Allende was a Chilean patriot, but he extended recognition to Chile’s indigenous peoples and sought to give them autonomy within the Chilean state. Allende was also a patriot of Latin America, and of socialism. He recognised that every people had its place in the pantheon of humanity. Allende showed that true patriotism is open and seeks commonalities, and that it recognises that concrete people are the nation, not abstract symbols.
The Chilean experience would suggest that for socialists to win power in the developed world they need to begin instilling and developing a socialist sense of inclusive patriotism that speaks to a specific society. Perhaps the term is too polluted, and another one is needed, but the point is that socialists need to effectively marry the universal to the particular. After all, with the exception of the Russian revolution (which occurred at a time of total state collapse which made it unnecessary), no socialist movement without a patriotic message has taken power anywhere in the world.
In the developed world, a socialist patriotism would have to begin with a thorough criticism of imperialism and the ways in which it distorted the development of these societies (including recognising the role of migrants and migration in that history and struggle), the identification of the scars it has left on the mentalities of western socialists (the interventionist reflex for example). It would require a realistic understanding of the role of state institutions through history and into the present, particularly of the armed forces. Without this, patriotism risks easily sliding into jingoism, nationalism and xenophobia.
As Allende’s Chilean patriotism showed, patriotism would also need to be grounded in a celebration of that which is ‘good’ in the histories of these peoples. The Spanish people have colonialism, but also the Republic. France has Algeria, but also the Resistance and the Commune. The history of class struggle, of struggle by marginalised groups means that every people has figures and events to be proud of. Particularly if we regard them all as manifestations of a struggle that is common to all of humanity. This does not mean ignoring difficult questions or seeking to forget those episodes that do not neatly fit the narrative. Nevertheless, without any celebration of the positive, socialists risk isolating themselves from societies that are still rooted in the nation state.
Allende knew that a socialism without sovereignty, without patriotism, was a socialism without roots. Year after year Allende related socialism to Chile’s specific conditions, to the specific problems of the Chilean working class. And he also related this struggle to the common struggle of all Latin Americans to fulfil the Bolivarian dream, and to the struggle of all peoples for national self-determination and the construction of socialism. Without this linkage between the universal utopia and the specific context, without these two legs, the socialist project cannot advance.
Sovereignty also connects with anti-interventionism and peace, issues which are fundamental to a truly socialist foreign policy. If we want soldiers from the poorest sectors of our society to stop dying (and much more often, killing) in wars fought for ‘reasons of state’ and corporate benefit, we need to develop a solid rationale for opposing intervention. Allende emphasised that demanding respect for the sovereignty of Chile meant Chile respecting the sovereignty of others. Allende’s foreign policy was a model of non-intervention towards governments that were the polar opposites of his, after all during his government with the exception of Peru, Chile was surrounded by right-wing military dictatorships.
Does this mean that socialists should pursue an amoral foreign policy? No. For example, Allende criticised the Soviet interventions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, but he did so as part of a general condemnation of imperialist intervention – arguing that it was hypocritical to criticise the USSR while conveniently forgetting about US interventions in Santo Domingo or Vietnam. And it is clear that he did not place these interventions in the same category. After all, Allende recognised the Soviet Union as socialist.
Allende’s commitment to Chilean sovereignty and to non-intervention meant that he never allowed his political opponents to define right and wrong for him. He routinely defended the Soviet Union, North Korea, Vietnam, China, Cuba and various anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements. On Cold War issues Allende was always aware of the imbalance between the power of the US and that of the USSR. Whether on this or some domestic issue, Allende refused to allow liberal or conservative politicians or the media to set the parameters of debate. In this he defended his own sovereignty, his ability to make up his own mind.
Today, socialists are routinely forced to ‘agree’ common positions with liberals and conservatives, whether on China, Cuba, Syria, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela or Russia. We can see the bias and the lies the media spread about our own movements, but we somehow assume that they are telling the truth about other parts of the world. This doesn’t mean we should give every regime a free pass, but Allende visited the places he defended in Parliament, he engaged with them directly, on their terrain, and he made up his own mind. This is the minimum that we should do today as we build a sovereign and socialist foreign policy.
For Allende sovereignty was impossible without real democracy, and real democracy went beyond elections. Participation in decision-making was the only way for a society to assess its reality, define problems and the connections between them, and devise solutions and the order in which issues should be tackled. Allende would have liked to have connected the nationalisation of copper to the broader issue of constitutional reform, which would have removed the institutional barriers that later proved fatal to the UP. For Allende democracy was essential in the workplace, in the neighbourhood – because real democracy was about collective problem solving, about participation, organisation and discussion of the allocation of resources. Trade unions, indigenous organisations, women’s organisations, neighbourhood associations – these all had a role to play in making democracy real. For Allende democracy had little to do with electoral cycles and representative government.
Socialists should be clear on the importance that democratic reform will have for the realisation of any manifesto for social justice. Allende came to socialism as the way to achieve, to make real, Chile’s sovereignty, development and democracy, to make real the promise of the slogan of ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’. But Allende also connected these concepts to the solution of the very real human problems faced by ordinary Chileans. For Allende, the people, their traditions, their culture… this was the patria. This was Chile.
Throughout his life Allende emphasised the importance of the ‘mother-child binary’ as the core social concern of government. Healthcare, nutrition, mental health provision and education should focus on mothers and children as the core unit of society. What was the economy if not the means to ensure this? Perhaps if Allende had not been forced to focus so much on defending the viability of the peaceful road to socialism he could have made a stronger point of this message in the run up to his election. Nevertheless, throughout his life Allende linked economic policy – fundamentally nationalisations and agrarian reform – to social policy. He even saw national security in terms of the health and educational level of the population – a weak and poorly educated population could not effectively defend the patria.
This approach was the root of the famous half litre of milk per day that the Popular Unity provided children. Even this amount of milk would resolve many of the problems associated with malnutrition. This could be seen as populism, except that it went hand in hand with a meaningful expansion of popular access to work, food, housing, healthcare and education. Marginalised groups were recognised and received in the presidential palace. The government strongly rejected repression as a way of dealing with social discontent, and opened negotiations with landless peasants and others who saw an opportunity to be heard by those in power for the first time.
The Chilean media scornfully called Allende’s government, ‘the government of worn heels’, and this was true. His government was the first to include real workers in positions of power, people who didn’t prioritise fashion, to say the least. But nor did they have much money. Members of the Socialist Party serving his government or elected to Congress gave a fixed monthly quota to the Party, while the Communists gave their entire salaries to their Party, and got back a stipend equivalent to that of a skilled worker. UP functionaries accepted without question that one of Allende’s first measures was to reduce the salaries of top government functionaries and put an end to lavish expenditure. Power was a solemn responsibility not a privilege.
Such symbolism may seem excessive – after all the salaries are there to compensate great responsibility and long hours – but who can deny that ordinary people feel angry when they hear that British MPs earn over £80,000 or that US Congressional Representatives earn over US$170,000? People earning many times more than ordinary workers cannot claim to represent these workers as their equals. A relationship of comradeship, of common challenges faced together then effectively becomes one of charity or philanthropy. Ordinary people have had enough of that. As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shows, people are ready to throw support behind champions who are in it for the fight, not the kudos or the money.
Allende was middle class, and an important political figure in Chile for decades, and yet he managed to avoid being cast as a hypocrite. Allende may have worked inside the system, but he consistently marked out his differences from it. He was not of the system. He showed this in his speeches and his campaigning, but also by insisting that socialists would take their oath of office a day after the rest of Congress, or by refusing to wear top hat and tails to meet Queen Elizabeth or at his inauguration. Symbols yes, but important ones. By the late 1960s Allende was being excoriated in the media in a way that Chile had never seen. It was something that Allende told Congress he wouldn’t wish on anyone. But he faced it with determination and dignity.
Today leaders like Jeremy Corbyn have faced a similar media campaign. Like Allende, Corbyn faced this storm with calm, with dignity and with unwavering commitment to defend those who are truly abused by the daily injustices of a capitalist society. But the dignity, the ethical commitment of some needs to become the attitude, the culture of the movement if we are to counter the rise of the right and ever take power. Allende in particular, and the leaders of the Chilean left in general were imbued with a strong ethical commitment to the cause. As history shows, it was a commitment that many of them, including Allende, saw through to their deaths. Socialists in the West today need to rediscover that most un-western sense of sacrifice for the good of others, that militant selflessness if they are to enthuse and motivate the people to put them in power. These are some of the lessons that can be drawn from Allende’s 1970 victory. Socialists today need to look to these and lessons from Venezuela and elsewhere to develop a successful strategy and avoid the pitfalls that have dogged western socialist movements in the past.