Salvador Allende, 40 Years On

by Victor Figueroa Clark, Samuel Grove

Four decades after the coup that brought Pinochet to power, Salvador Allende's legacy continues to shape Chile and the continent.

First published: 11 September, 2013 | Category: History, International

Today marks the 40th anniversary of Chile’s 9/11. Much is known about the death of Salvador Allende. Outside of Chile comparatively less is known about his life. Victor Figueroa Clark, author of a new biography of Allende, sat down with Samuel Grove to discuss Allende's political life and legacy. 

Part 1 of the interview examines Allende's political formation, his distinctive position in the Chilean Left and his period in power. Part 2 follows tomorrow

Can we begin with Allende’s early life and how it informed his politics?

When Salvador was growing up he was moved around a lot. He spent some time in Valparaiso, a port city which had a very strong anarchist movement within the trade unions when he was there. He also lived in the city of Tacna in what is now Peru (it was then occupied by Chile), and in Iquique around the time of one of the biggest massacres of Chilean history (La Matanza de la Escuela Santa María de Iquique) in which something like three thousand (maybe more) workers were machine gunned down while they were protesting for better pay and conditions. Allende would have probably witnessed these marches and would have heard the slogans of the workers when he was a boy. Iquique was a very political city where the Communist Party was founded in 1912. When Allende was an adolescent he moved to Valdivia in the south where the majority of the population lived in relative poverty. It was a city with high German immigration, and Allende would have witnessed this very rich German elite lording it over Chileans and indigenous people. 

One of Allende’s most profound early experiences came in Valparaiso, when he met an anarchist shoemaker called Juan DeMarchi who taught him his first lessons in class struggle and introduced him to the works of Marx and Bakunin. That is the only evidence we have from Allende himself in terms of a first contact with politics. But we also have to remember that the time when Allende was growing up, between 1908 and 1925, was a period in Chilean history when there was a great deal of social ferment—there were a lot of strikes, a lot of mobilisation, trade unions being founded, the Communist Party was founded, there were unions linked to the IWW and you also had the Mexican revolution in 1910, the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Chinese Revolution in 1911, World War 1 is a game changer across the world and Allende is clearly influenced by this milieu. In Chile there were radical calls for social reforms to address the country's inequality and immense poverty and Allende would have seen all this. 

Seen it, but not experienced it?

 Allende was from quite an upper middle class background. His father was a lawyer and a bit of a bon vivant who enjoyed drinking and womanising and so on. He also had politicians in his family. His grandfather had been a very well known radical politician in the nineteenth century (so much so that he was known, for the colour of his hair and for his politics, as ‘The Red Allende’). His uncle was mayor of Santiago, and his father had gone to university with the man who became president of Chile in 1920 [Alessandri], who was a regular visitor to the family home. 

So we have a series of contrasts here. I think the reason Allende became politicised is that it was a tumultuous time, but politics was also a career that, given his background, was within his sphere of possibility. Allende told anecdotes of when he left school at 16 or 17. On one occasion he and his friends were discussing what they wanted to be. Someone asked him and he said, “I’ll be President of Chile” and everyone laughed. But for him it is never clear whether it was a joke, or whether even then he had that kind of vision. 

The politicians in Allende's family and those he encountered weren’t as radical as he was, and if he was determined to become the President of Chile, he was equally determined not to take the easy road.

When Allende was growing up the liberal and democratic parties could have potentially channelled his youthful enthusiasm, but they had been in power on and off since the late nineteenth century and had clearly failed to deal with the big issues of the day. You also had, essentially, the collapse of the democratic system that existed after the 1891 Civil War, so it was a system of great instability, in which the centrist parties were bankrupt. 

But he never lost faith in the liberal class.

Well, a lot of that comes from his family. His father fought for Balmaceda in the 1891 Civil War. His [great-grandfather and] great uncles fought for Bernardo O'Higgins in the Chilean independence struggle. And in Chile these struggles left a legacy of slogans and ideals and utopias which, though essentially abandoned through the nineteenth century, remained an underlying legitimisation for radicalism, secularism and socialism. I am not sure Allende was unique in this regard (I believe it can be found in Marx and Engels’ writings), but he saw his socialism as being a development of those ideas rather than a rupture with them. If you are a liberal who really believes in ‘liberty, equality, and fraternity’ then the obvious next step is socialism. 

Can you talk about the government of the Popular Front in the 1930s and '40s and how it showed, in your words, that a ‘peaceful road to socialism was possible’?

The Popular Front government came about in the wake of a turbulent decade of political violence and the grave danger of Chilean fascism. Yet Chile’s institutions were strong and flexible enough to withstand this and allow a reformist government that included both socialists and communists into power. This reformist, non-revolutionary yet democratic government was then able to use its power to extend the role of the state in social and economic life, provide mass education for the first time, create a health system, and so on, despite the often quite radical opposition of the Chilean elite. As a minister in this government Allende saw it develop and he later spoke of it as a formative experience. 

Allende always defended his record in the Popular Front. Part of his defence and broader reasoning was his insistence on ‘distinguishing between strategy and doctrine’. What did he mean by this?

A lot of this argument is aimed at Allende’s own party. The motors of the Chilean left are the Socialist and Communist parties [and the trade union movement], and the Communist Party doesn’t have this issue with doctrine and strategy that the socialists do. The Socialist Party, however, contains all kinds of different groups and factions, including social democrats who aren’t seeking a revolution. Allende also encounters those that believe revolution is rupture. So he sought to instil a more flexible doctrine that could hold these forces together. In some ways it is a paradox because what he is calling for is more doctrine, but less rigidity. 

...a paradox that nonetheless helps explain why there were certain issues, doctrinal issues perhaps, that he was unwilling to be flexible on—such as participating in the Communist witch hunts.

Yes. During the late 1940s and '50s the Socialist Party split and part of it went into office with a series of populist but essentially right-wing governments that carried out communist witch hunts and repression. Allende rejected this because he believed that you can’t make a real revolution without the working class, and the communists were the working class. Instead he tried to get the socialists to see that the communists are their natural allies, and secondly he tried to reach out beyond the left. 

How did he do this?

We shouldn’t look at it exclusively through party political lenses because Allende was never able to carry a majority voice within the leadership of the Socialist Party. He had a lot of mass support, a lot of mass recognition but there was not really an “Allendista” faction within the leadership. So I think Allende’s special role was more a kind of a figurehead in the left as a whole and as the man that worked hardest to build unity with the Communist Party; putting the brakes on those socialists who wanted to break with them; ensuring that the social democrats couldn’t run away with anticommunism; always drawing a line between reformism that preserves capitalism and reformism that would seek to transcend it; and reaching beyond the political parties. I think that’s what he did very, very effectively and essentially it is that which made him successful. 

If Allende never commanded a majority support from the electorate, by the 1970 elections there was at least a sizeable majority that supported his policies. By this point the Christian Democrats had been shifted leftwards by an active rank and file of the party that were basically in support of Allende’s proposals. However, it is one thing to support proposals in the relative safety of a liberal party. It is quite another to support the proposals in a party that is allied with the communists and is in the process of directly challenging and confronting conservative, fascist, and imperialist forces. It seems that whatever their opinions were in the abstract, a majority of Chileans were still not prepared to engage in the kind of confrontations that the proposals in fact entailed. Do you agree?

Allende always distinguished between the leadership of the Christian Democrats and the base. Allende was probably the first politician in Chile to identify the danger of the development of a kind of conservative reformism. He tried, in the late 1950s, to get his own party to accept the Falange into a coalition, I think because he thought it would be better to have them close by, where they can be heavily influenced by the leaders on the left; and because of the very practical idea that when you win small victories together it actually builds unity, commitment and a history. But his own party put the kibosh on that and really didn’t want anything to do with these people, who were often Catholic, petit-bourgeois and very conservative. But Allende never lost the understanding that the leaders of the Christian Democrats would always have a lot of support from the population, and so what he consistently sought to go over the heads of the leadership of the Christian Democrats and appeal to the base. 

In the run up to the 1970 elections he recognized that the campaign of Tomic, his Christian Democrat opponent, was essentially the same as his, but he wanted to force the Christian Democrat leadership to put their money where their mouth was. If they are talking about building communitarian socialism, he says, then by rights they ought to be with us in the same alliance; in the alliance with the Popular Unity. 

Who were the Popular Unity (UP)?

They were an alliance of socialist, communist and radical parties that began in 1969 in the run up to the 1970 election. 

...and who win power in 1970.

Yes, the Popular Unity managed to win the presidency in 1970. People often state that he only won 37% of the vote, but if you compare the UP programme and that of the Christian Democrats, the similarities are very clear, with both talking about a transformation to socialism. Adding the two it becomes clear that 64% of the population voted for a transformation towards socialism. Contemporary accounts of victory detail mass celebrations across the country, where Christian Democrat supporters celebrated alongside their Popular Unity compatriots. In Santiago hundreds of thousands of people, from a population of two or three million, were out on the streets in the middle of the night, bouncing up and down in the traditional Chilean celebration. It was a celebration that was all the sweeter for having come after the bitter defeat of 1964. 

What did Allende achieve in his three years of office and was Chile undergoing a revolutionary process?

The Popular Unity achieved a lot in its relatively short time in office, but many of these reforms were reversed after 1973. However two of the most fundamental reforms were not, and they have made Chile the country it is today. It isn’t an exaggeration to say it. 

The nationalisation of copper, carried out by unanimous vote, has sustained Chile economically ever since, despite the partial privatisation under Pinochet. But even Pinochet was not stupid enough to privatise it all, knowing that income from this was what allowed him to finance the armed forces and fund his social support. Since 1990 copper still accounts for something like 70% of Chile’s income, so we can see that this reform alone has to stand as the most important carried out in Chile in the twentieth century. 

The second measure was the completion of the agrarian reform which destroyed the traditional latifundio. Under Allende land was given to peasants and indigenous people; under Pinochet this was then sold to companies, laying the foundations for Chile’s agribusiness today. But the latifundio as existed prior to 1970 is gone. For me these measures alone don’t make a revolution, but they were carried out alongside efforts to democratise the political system, the state apparatus, the educational structure. 

So we can see Allende and the UP were trying to transform both the state’s repressive apparatus and its ideological apparatus while also trying to seize the levers of economic power from the elite and from US imperialism. Taken together this is what made them dangerous, and what made them true revolutionaries.

On Wednesday 25 September in London Victor Figueroa Clark will participate in a Q&A about Allende chaired by Ellie Mae O'Hagan (columnist for the Guardian). Event info here.

Victor Figueroa Clark teaches at the LSE International History department and is the author of Salvador Allende: Revolutionary Democrat. His previous research focused on guerrilla struggles in Chile and Central America, and on the dynamics through which political struggles become violent. He also has extensive knowledge of the conflict in Colombia and is a consultant for the UK-based human rights campaign Justice for Colombia. He is the editor of 

Samuel Grove is an editor of - www.alborada/samuelgrove

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