[Marxism] Salvador Allende

Louis Proyect 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-militants–now in 
advanced middle-age–think 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 people–including 
me–have 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 
interests were.

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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