[Marxism] Salvador Allende
lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Jun 28 06:29:24 MDT 2008
Made in 2004, Patricio Guzmán's "Salvador Allende" makes its debut at
New York's Anthology Film Archives from September 5-13. Guzmán, who
fled Chile after Pinochet's coup, also directed "The Battle for
Chile," a film trilogy on Allende's government that I have not seen.
Although there is a tendency to sidestep painful political lessons
from the 1973 coup in "Salvador Allende," I strongly urge New Yorkers
to see it. It is an extremely moving account of the life and death of
a socialist politician, whose career would seem to speak to the
contemporary situation in Latin America, where a democratic
transition to socialism seems to be unfolding to one degree or
another in Venezuela. Given the hostility of the US and the upper
classes in Allende's Chile and Hugo Chavéz's Venezuela, a documentary
such as "Salvador Allende" offers much food for thought.
It is obvious from "Salvador Allende" and from reviews of "Battle for
Chile" (a film that I have not seen) that Guzmán is a partisan of the
Popular Unity government, a coalition of working class and bourgeois
parties that campaigned successfully for Allende in 1970. Despite
this, the film is not uncritical. In a gut-wrenching segment that
occurs toward the end of the film, a group of worker-militantsnow in
advanced middle-agethink back ruefully on the period and wonder why
they were so ill-prepared to resist the coup. One, barely holding
back tears, says, "We should have done more to strengthen the cords."
As somebody who followed the events in Chile closely between 1970 and
1973, this reference was obscure even to me. What was a cord?
In the course of looking at some studies of the Popular Unity
government days after seeing the film, I discovered the answer. Cord
is the nickname for cordónes, the neighborhood and factory based
committees that Chileans recognized as a form of "people's power." If
organized and armed on a nation-wide basis, this institution and
others like it could have successfully beaten back the coup.
Unfortunately, Allende's Socialist Party and the Communists were
suspicious of the grass roots movement and relied almost exclusively
on official state institutions such as parliament and the army to
promote an agenda that while progressive stopped short of the
elimination of private property.
"Salvador Allende" is filled with oblique references to this failure
but focuses more on Allende the individual, whose tragic inability to
remain in power obviously flows from his political roots. In one of
the film's very revealing interviews, the former mayor of Allende's
hometown Valparaiso, a self-described Communist and friend, states
that Allende identified with the values of the French Revolution and
never once defended Marxist ideas in private conversations, even
though he was familiar with the literature. Another interviewee
states that Allende's earliest ideological influence was an Italian
anarchist shoemaker. These two accounts add up to a portrait of
somebody committed to the ideas of freedom, but not in the best
position to realize them through the exercise of state power.
The film excels at bringing to life the long journey Allende made in
Chilean politics. Contrary to the impression many peopleincluding
mehave of the Popular Unity government being something unique in
Chilean history, the first popular front government was elected in
1938, a Latin American counterpart of the Spanish and French
Socialist Party-led coalition governments. On that occasion, the 30
year old Allende became Minister of Health. Like Che Guevara, Allende
was a trained physician. After the popular front was voted out of
office, Allende continued to run for regional and national offices
for the remainder of his political career. The film includes
fascinating scenes of the young Allende speaking to crowds of working
class people with joyful expressions on their face. If Allende lacked
a clear vision of how their interests could be defended through the
use of state power, he at least was always forceful about what those
If Allende was torn between revolutionary and reformist impulses,
there was little doubt that his main coalition partners in the CP of
Chile were far more dedicated to staying within the framework of
bourgeois democracy and deferring to the rule of capital. On June 20,
1972, the NY Times editorialized:
President Allende has moved to resolve a severe crisis within
his Popular Unity coalition in Chile by rejecting the radical counsel
of his own Socialist party and adopting the more moderate and
conciliatory approach urged by the Communists. In thus shifting back
toward the center of Chile's political spectrum, Dr. Allende has
reduced the danger of large-scale civil strife and given his revamped
Government its best chance to revive a sagging economy.
The Communists hurl such epithets as 'infantile' and 'elitist'
at the M.I.R. and condemn its illegal seizures of farms and
factories. They urge consolidation, rather than rapid extension, of
the Allende Government's economic and social programs, negotiations
on constitutional reform with the opposition Christian Democrats and
a working relationship with private businesses. Dr. Allende has now
taken this road in an effort to curb unemployment and inflation and
to boost production.
Whatever unwillingness he had to confront big business within Chile's
borders, Salvador Allende never backed down from global capital in
various speeches, including one made to the United Nations on
September 4, 1972 speech to the United Nations. Guzmán correctly
points out that this speech was one of the first to recognize the
problems of "globalization" in language that sounds strikingly to
Naomi Klein or Walden Bello:
We are faced by a direct confrontation between the large
transnational corporations and the states. The corporations are
interfering in the fundamental political, economic and military
decisions of the states. The corporations are global organizations
that do not depend on any state and whose activities are not
controlled by, nor are they accountable to any parliament or any
other institution representative of the collective interest. In
short, all the world political structure is being undermined. The
dealers don't have a country. The place where they may be does not
constitute any kind of link; the only thing they are interested in is
where they make profits.
Fundamentally, there was a disjunction between Allende's obvious
commitment to ending this dependency on imperialist corporations and
his willingness to empower the only class in society that had the
power to do so. In a delicate balancing act between a radicalized
proletariat and peasantry and the more privileged classes in Chile
and their American benefactors, Allende hoped to make incremental
changes that would tip the scales in favor of the poor.
Unfortunately, the rich and important sectors of the middle class
would not respect parliamentary rules and began to plot to overthrow
Allende, just as has been the case in Venezuela. While Guzmán is
quite penetrating when it comes to the machinations of the rich, he
tends to hold back when it comes to contradictions within the left.
Apparently, there is much more willingness in Guzmán's "The Battle
for Chile" to examine the clash between the Popular Unity government
and its base. The World Socialist Website, which tends to
sectarianism frequently despite its generally astute political
analysis, was quite generous in its review of "The Battle for Chile,"
which it regarded as a "heartfelt testament to Pinochet's victims."
It made clear that the ambivalence about and or hostility to
"people's power" within the upper circles of Allende's government
were shared by the director, whose remarks in a Q&A following a
screening of the film in London, demonstrated an unwillingness to
come to terms with Mao's observation that political power grows out
of the barrel of a gun:
Guzmán described the trilogy at a question and answer session
after the screening as a tribute to the Popular Unity government
period and Allende particularly. This was clearly the intention of
The Coup, but because of the way the film was made, a more critical
picture of the situation in Chile still emerges. It is clear, for
example, that the workers were a huge and potent force. In the middle
of July workers took the streets of the Vicuna McKenna district. In
the ensuing stand-off the mayor of Santiago had to be called in to
move the police two blocks away. Workers are repeatedly seen
demanding arms to defend Allende, arms which Allende was denying
them. An old member of the Communist Party is seen warning that if
the workers lose it will be like Spain after the civil war.
The issue of arms crops up repeatedly. Allende, who refused to
create a workers militia, dismissed his police from La Moneda before
the bombardment began, leaving only 40 bodyguards. As the coup
approached, the military stepped up weapons searches in order to
gauge the strength of the workers. At the question session, Guzmán
expressly disagreed that the refusal to arm the workers had been a
mistake. It would have been impossible, he said, because the military
would have known it was happening. In any case, it was already known
that the military were preparing a coup. In other words, once it
began the coup was inevitably going to be a success. Yet even in the
last few days before the coup, the streets of Santiago were filled
with mass demonstrations in defence of Allende.
Despite both coming to power through the ballot, there are
significant differences between Allende and Hugo Chavéz. First of
all, Chavéz was a military officer himself with broad connections to
leftist officers, perhaps the most striking characteristic of
Venezuelan politics where an Air Force general is described by
Richard Gott in "Shadow of the Liberator" as having "Trotskyist"
politics. By contrast, Air Force officers in the US tend to be
followers of the Christian Right.
But more importantly, the primary ideological inspiration for
Chavéz's movement is revolutionary socialism rather than 1930s style
popular frontism. According to Gott, a number of Chavéz's primary
influences were Marxists to the left of the CP. In declaring for a
21st century socialism, Chavéz has made repeated references to the
failure of Soviet socialism in terms that reflect the influences of
the Trotskyist movement. Of course, as is always the case with
Chavéz, he makes up his own mind based on what he thinks is right.
This includes his willingness to stand up to the bourgeois parties in
Venezuela, unlike Allende who kept making concession after concession
to the Christian Democrats who were plotting his overthrow. To show
that he was deferential to their interests, he kept bringing military
men into his cabinet and even put Pinochet in charge of public
security not 6 months before Pinochet overthrew his government.
Guzmán reflects a tendency that was very strong on the Chilean left
and that even included the radical guerrillas of the MIR. It found
itself torn between support for Allende's government and support for
the "people's power" in the street that could have been Chile's salvation.
In reviewing one of the better leftwing critiques of the Popular
Unity government (the aptly titled "Chile: The State and Revolution"
by Ian Roxborough, Philip O'Brien and Jackie Roddick), I came across
the words of ordinary Chilean workers from this period reflecting an
acute awareness of the danger they faced. This interview with a
"Socialist militant" from the Cordón San Joaquín appeared in Chile
Hoy a month before the coup:
Chile Hoy: What do the majority of the comrades in the cordon
think of the new cabinet? [one that included military officers]:
Socialist militant from Cordon San Joaquin: We have not
discussed it yet. But certainly people are very confused. In fact,
the demonstration today lacks a sense of combativity, there is no
common purpose, and there are no clear slogans. One can see that the
masses don't look on the incorporation of military men into the
cabinet with much sympathy. There is no clarity. The parties should
tell the masses what their reasons are for choosing this road.
Neither Calderon nor Figueroa (both leaders of the CUT, and ex
members of the government, the first Socialist, the second Communist)
filled this need in their speeches. And it would have been difficult
for them to do it, in this climate of agitation. The president of
Cordon Vicuna Mackenna, where the movement to take over factories
after June 29th was strongest:
We saw this cabinet as a betrayal of the working class. It shows
that the government is still vacillating and has no confidence in the
working class. The generals in the cabinet are a guarantee for the
capitalists, just as they were in October, a guarantee for Vilarin
(leader of the striking lorry owners) and not for the working class.
We've already been through this solution: More tyres and trucks for
Vilarin . . . the same thing again. For this reason, we think that
the situation is quite dangerous, because we think the army's
searches will continue and we believe that many of those now fighting
will fall, including those of us who are at this moment struggling
for People's Power.
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