In what ways was Salvador Allende’s “democratic road to socialism” in Chile distinct from Mexican and Cuban revolutionary movements? In what ways was it similar? Does it seem as though a democratic alternative to political coup d’etat is a workable and useful one? Why or why not?
Salvador Guillermo Allende Gossens, or just Salador Allende for short, was the first of the South American leader to institute a Marxist form of socialism, who came to power through a democratic election. Although the election that brought Allende to power was virtually a three-way tie, the Chilean Congress eventually named him as president through a run-off process. This victory was substantial for Allende’s life and he had tried on three previous occasions to win the presidency. At the time, the Chilean government had several left-leaning government factions, with some more radical than others. This movement mirrored many other movements found in the world in a time in which Communism was one the rise in certain areas. However, the rise of leftist ideologies was mostly in isolated pockets in South America and Chile was the pioneer in this region. This analysis will provide an overview of Chile’s road to socialism and how it was a unique phenomenon when compared to other movements that occurred on the continent.
Allende was active in politics at a relatively young age and was raised in a family environment that took up many progressive liberal causes. In his early career, Allende worked as a physician who believed that many medical conditions were dependent on social circumstances. The inequality that was present in Chile at the time was correlated with many negative health outcomes that Allende was fully aware of and this worked to shape his worldview. He was deeply influenced by Marx, and his personal experience of vast inequality deepened his beliefs about socialism being the most humane path forward for Chile.
His views were also influenced at an early age. For example, his uncle Ramon Allende, who was the organizer of Chile’s medical services during the country’s war with Bolivia and Peru, helped shape his views at an early age and when Allende began his medical studies he was actively involved in university politics as a leader of the Chilean Student Federation (Gale Group, N.d.). In this leadership position, Allende found him active in student protests against dictator Carlos Ibanez and was arrested multiple times. This illustrates his sense of devotion to the socialist ideology at an early age. Furthermore, his father shared a similar passion for this cause. When Allende’s father died, at the funeral Allende declared, “I would dedicate my life to the social struggle, and I believe that I have fulfilled that promise” (Gale Group, N.d.).
Many other leaders who shared Allende’s views were also influenced by their personal experiences of inequality. For example, Che Guevara, the 20th century icon of rebellion, justice, and equality was also influenced by his personal experiences that allowed him to witness vast levels of inequality; in his journal, The Motorcycle Diaries, Che documents this journey and how he came into close contact;
“… with poverty, with hunger, with disease, with the inability to cure a child because of a lack of resources, with the numbness that hunger and continued punishment cause [to the point that] losing a child is an unimportant incident (Guevara, 2005 (Originally Printed in 1965)).”
Therefore, it is easy to draw parallel between Che’s personal experience (who was also trained as a doctor) with that of Allende. However, despite this commonality, the means in which these two individuals pursued their socialist visions were starkly different.
Che and his affiliation of Cuban revolutionary figures, including Fidel Castro, were unabashedly comfortable with waging a violent revolution to pursue their visions. In fact, during the Cuban Revolution, Guevara often had strategic and ideological conflicts with many individuals who could largely be viewed as supporters to the Cuban revolutionary movement. However, Che would often view moderate sympathizers as insufficiently revolutionary and loathed such groups as the urban leadership who were not as quick to be accepting of using an armed rebellion to achieve their objectives, but were otherwise ideologically aligned with the general ambitions of socialism (Sweig, 2009). Figures such as Guevara and Castro were willing to lay their lives on the line for their political ambitions and the causes they felt deeply compelled to address, such as inequality in Latin America. Furthermore, this dedication set the tone for many of the revolutionary efforts that followed in Latin American countries.
By contrast, Allende’s path was one of non-violence and his rise to power in Chile was through the path of the traditional political institutions. Although Allende was undoubtedly influenced by the Marxist ideas of revolution, he devised a unique path into which society might reach a similar state of socialism. The originality of the Popular Unity and Allende’s political project consisted in transforming the class character of the bourgeois state without the condition of destroying it, which is commonly thought to be demanded by the general principles of Marxism, and proposed that by electorally controlling the most important component of political power, the government or executive power, it was possible, to control the other institutions (i.e., judiciary, legislative etc.) and to gradually transform the character of the state to a more humane and equitable system (Vergara & Sanchez, 2013). In Chile Under Allende, Thomas Wright describes Chile before Allende, his subsequent rise to power, and his eventual overthrow by military coup; however, before the coup, the movement was such a stark contrast to the revolutionary forms that expressed Marxist objectives, that even Fidel Castro visited Chile for a month after Allende to power, evidence that he was at the very least intrigued by the occurrence of a peaceful revolution and transition to a socialist state (Wes, 2012).
The tragic end of the Popular Unity government led by Allende and stopped by a coup, for a long time, posed a fundamentally different concept to the Latin American and international revolutionary movement and represented the fact that it is at least conceivable that a “peaceful road” toward socialism in pluralism, freedom and democracy proposed by Allende was possible and that there might be alternatives to Marx’s historical conception of the revolution marked by bloody struggles (Vergara & Sanchez, 2013). Many other of the popular revolutionary figures in South America, as well as in the world in general, operated under the assumption that violence was a necessary perquisite to building a more just society, and as such, often used this justification to rationalize their brutal acts of warfare. It is easy to empathize with their tactics for some considering that they undoubtedly believed that they were pursuing the only path that was available to rid society of such unethical class divisions and usher in a more egalitarian and moral framework to regulate society. Yet, since Allende’s rise to power in Chile, one must question the Marxist assumption that there is only one path and consider more peaceful alternatives.
In fact, Allende’s contribution was so great from an ideological and tactical standpoint, that many people who were against socialist movements but still recognized the power in Allende’s message were quick to downplay its success. For example, while the people and the Chilean working-class were still counting their casualties and mourning their dead, when some inside and outside of the left rushed to question and vehemently denied the viability of the Allendista project, some worked to spread propagandist messages in order to elimate the possibility of a peaceful revolution to those who might be sympathetic to the cause, such as in the following message:
The Marxists, with the knowledge and approval of Salvador Allende, had brought into Chile innumerable arsenals of weapons which they kept in private houses, offices, factories, warehouses. The world doesn’t know that the Chilean Marxists had at their disposal armaments superior in number and quality to those of the army, enough for over thirty thousand men…The military saved Chile for all of us…. Civil war had been perfectly prepared by the Marxists. And that is what the world does not know or does not want to know (Harris, 1999).
The fact that the opposition felt the need to attempt to redefine Allende’s successes with portrayals that made him seem more like other revolutionary movements illustrates how scary the proposition of a peaceful path towards socialism might seem to some. While many revolutionaries undoubtedly lack the passion and dedication to the cause found in revolutionary figures such as Che and Castro that would allow them to justify the use of violence, Allende’s vision allows for a more moderate ideology to join the cause and which would have undoubtedly expanded the mass appeal of socialist movements in Latin America and across the globe.
Gale Group. (N.d.). Salvador Allende Gossens Facts. Retrieved from Your Dictionary: http://biography.yourdictionary.com/salvador-allende-gossens
Guevara, C. (2005 (Originally Printed in 1965)). Socialism and man in Cuba. The Che Reader.
Harris, R. (1999). A Tale of Two Chileans: Pinochet and Allende. Chilean Supporters Abroad.
Sweig, J. (2009). Inside the Cuban Revolution: Fidel Castro and the Urban Underground. Boston: Harvard University Press.
Vergara, R., & Sanchez, M. (2013, September 11). Allende and 21st Century Socialism. Retrieved from The Bullet: http://www.socialistproject.ca/bullet/876.php
Wes, P. (2012, October 21). Chile, Allende, and a Peaceful Revolution. Retrieved from Latin American Revolutions: http://larev.voices.wooster.edu/chile-allende-and-a-peaceful-revolution/