Victor Figueroa Clark
This September is the 40th anniversary of the death of Salvador Allende. Many of today’s generation of young activists may not even have heard of either Allende or the Popular Unity, and if they have, may know them only in the context of the 1973 coup. So the question of the relevance of Allende in the UK today seems like a fair one.
World’s first elected Marxist government
The answer lies in the political practice and the ideas of a man who led the world’s first and so far, only, openly Marxist government to power through electoral means. Take a moment to consider the immense significance of this victory, achieved against the odds in an underdeveloped (‘overexploited’, Allende called it) country where the elite could count on the backing of the immeasurable resources of the world’s most powerful country. Despite CIA funding of the media and right-wing and centrist political parties; despite years of propaganda; despite years of efforts to split the trade unions and the left; despite the dirty tricks of the Chilean electoral and political system, Allende and the Popular Unity still won. This was a victory unparalleled anywhere in the world before or since. Indeed, while many of the revolutions of the 20th century followed the path of the Bolshevik seizure of power, it is possible that those of the 21st century will be more akin to Allende’s victory in 1970.
Lessons for the left today
At the time the enemies of the Popular Unity well understood the threat it posed to the stability of US interests in the world, the threat it posed to the global capitalist system. This is why their campaigns against it had begun over a decade earlier. Today, although the Popular Unity seems like a long time ago, I argue that the history of the Chilean left, the history of Allende, still hold out lessons for a world seeking the solution of the problems inherent in capitalism today.
There is a further relevance. While it is not a good idea to draw direct comparisons between different historical periods and different countries, it is interesting to note that Allende grew to maturity in a period that shared many similarities with our current world. In other words, Allende’s political project grew out of a similar period of instability and dissatisfaction.
Socialism in Chile
Back in the early 20th century, Chile had witnessed growing social mobilisation and increasing disillusion with free market economics and worsening inequality for many years. Across the country new organisations were being established with differing agendas for change. Around the world these changes were echoed by revolution in China and Mexico (1910), Russia (1917), and across Europe between 1916 and 1920. While we are not witnessing events of this magnitude, arguably the events in the Arab world and the occupy-type movements in Europe and North America are indicative of a similar unrest today. In Chile the recent mobilisations by students, indigenous people and by workers echo those of the early twentieth century. So perhaps the biggest difference with today was that socialist ideas stood out as inspirations for most of those historical movements, and in Russia as we know, Marxists took power with an agenda to build socialism. However, clearly something fundamental was changing across the world then as now.
Our contemporary movements share the criticism of the existing system that was articulated by the social movements of 1900-1920s Chile, but they have yet to define their vision of what would replace it. They are expressions of discontent that have yet to become programmes of change.
In the Chile of Allende’s youth the process of development from expression of discontent to clearly articulated vision of an alternative future had already occurred to a large extent, but there were still acrimonious debates over how far to go with changes and what form the revolution ought to take. Allende’s ideas developed through the exercise of government as part of the Popular Front of late 1930s and 1940s, but that experience, somewhat akin to the post-war Labour governments in the UK, confirmed in him the need for a transformation away from capitalism.
Allende’s revolutionary method
What is of particular relevance to us in the UK today is how Allende came to believe in reform as a revolutionary method, and where he differed from the social democracy of Western Europe. What this helps us to see is how an Allendista perspective on the revolutionary transformation of society can be applied to understand the shortcomings of the British left’s post-war policies, and to envision the shape the British left could take today in order to articulate an effective alternative to both the capitalist social democracy of the past and the capitalist neoliberalism of today. It is this Allendista vision of a socialist future achieved by democratic means that makes Allende and his life relevant for the left today.
In my opinion this is where Allende’s legacy lies, not as a ‘martyr president’ who fought to the death in a burning presidential palace, but as one of the 20th century’s most innovative and effective political figures, a revolutionary of the highest calibre and a great man in the truest sense of the word.