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A Special Supplement: Chile: Year One


That constitutional transfer of power and a peaceful transition to socialism are possible has been theoretically admitted by Marxists ever since Marx put it on record in 1872. The prospect for this transition, however, remains shadowy. Marxist writing about it remains scarce and abstract rather than concrete, probably because practical experience relevant to such discussion is almost completely lacking. So far no socialist economy has come into existence other than by violent or nonconstitutional transfers of power.

This makes the case of Chile today pretty well unique. Until November, 1970, when Salvador Allende took office as President, the cases that might claim to be legal transitions to socialism belonged to three types, all equally useless as precedents. First, there were plenty of examples of transfers of power, peaceful or otherwise, to social-democratic or “labor” governments. Unfortunately none of them made any attempt to introduce socialism and most did not even want to do so. Second, we have the popular fronts of the 1930s, which are at first sight rather similar to the Chilean Popular Unity, being essentially united fronts of socialists and communists within a wider electoral alliance of the left-of-center. This alliance implied a theory of noninsurrectionary roads to socialism, at least among the communists, but in practice this perspective was academic.

In fact the immediate political aims of such governments were defensive—to turn back the tide of fascism—and they rarely had the chance to get beyond this point. In any case, the configuration of political forces was such that communists and serious socialists were generally in no position to dominate the alliance, and could therefore not have gotten much further, even if the policy of the USSR and the Comintern had encouraged them to try, which it did not. Such was the case of the Chilean Popular Front of 1938, in which the middle-class radicals remained the decisive force.

Third, there were the governments of anti-fascist union which emerged out of the struggle against Germany at the end of the Second World War in a number of European countries. These might be considered the logical extension of the popular front strategy, and there is little doubt that a gradual and peaceful transition to socialism was in the minds of the communists and many resistance socialists who took part in them. The discussions on the nature of “people’s democracy” in 1943-47 make this fairly evident.

However, even if we overlook the armed struggle out of which these regimes actually emerged, the rapid breakdown of the national and international anti-fascist fronts very quickly put an end to this perspective. In the West the dominant political forces were entirely unprepared to allow such a peaceful transition, while in the East “people’s democracy” became a mere euphemism for orthodox communist rule on the Soviet model: in theoretical jargon, it was redefined as just another version of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” For practical purposes the peaceful road to socialism was blocked by the middle of 1947. This post World War II episode provides little guidance for future attempts to open such roads.

The situation in Allende’s Chile is thus unprecedented. There can be no doubt that the object of the Popular Unity government is socialism. Allende is in no sense like Leon Blum, Attlee, or Harold Wilson. The UP (Unidad Popular) is dominated by the two major working-class parties, both of which claim to be revolutionary Marxists. The only other party of substance in the coalition, the Radicals, was weak anyway and was so reduced in the municipal elections of April, 1971, as no longer to be a serious brake on the Marxists.

On the other hand it is equally clear that the UP means to achieve its object gradually (“the progressive construction of a new power structure” is the phrase used in Allende’s key Congressional Message) 1 and constitutionally. The “Chilean Way” is contrasted with the dictatorship of the proletariat as a “pluralist way, anticipated by the classics of Marxism, but never hitherto carried out concretely” (Message, p. 5).

This pluralist way is not to be identified with bourgeois democracy. Its legality will not necessarily remain that of the present which “reflects the requirements of a capitalist system. In the regime of transition to socialism, the juridical norms will reflect the requirements of a people straining to build a new society. But there will be legality.” The institutional system will be modified by existing constitutional means, e.g., by substituting a unicameral for a bicameral Congress. Nevertheless:

This is no mere formal compromise, but the explicit recognition that the principle of legality and the institutional order are consubstantial with the socialist regime, in spite of the difficulties they imply for the period of transition. We accept the political liberties of the opposition and continue our political activities within the boundaries of our institutions. Political liberties are an achievement of Chilean society as a whole, insofar as it constitutes a state. (Message, pp. 11-12.)

There is more than political calculation to Allende’s attachment to the Chilean Way. Unlike the ultra-left opposition outside the UP, and some elements within his own party, the President does not regard the existing situation as a mere interim, but potentially as the setting for long-term transformation. Internal or external counterrevolutionary violence is possible, but if it does not occur, legality and pluralist politics will continue. In other words, Chile is the first country in the world that is seriously attempting an alternative road to socialism.

This is a thrilling prospect and a politically valuable one. There is nothing countries, especially small countries, like better than to set an example to the whole world. In this instance the claim is probably true.

As Russia did (in 1917) so now Chile faces the need to initiate a new way of building the socialist society…. Social thinkers had supposed that more developed nations, probably Italy and France with their powerful Marxist class parties, would be the first to do so. However, once again history allows us to break with the past and to construct a new model of society, not where it was theoretically to be most plausibly expected, but where the most favorable conditions for its realization come into being. Chile is today the first nation on earth called upon to realize the second model of transition to socialist society. (Message, p. 5.)

The Chilean experience is thus far more than a piece of political exotica for observers from developed countries. Socialism will never come to, say, Western Europe in the Chinese or Vietnamese way, but it is at least possible to recognize in Chile the lineaments of political situations that might occur in industrialized societies, and the strategies that might apply there, as well as the problems and difficulties of the “pluralist way.” This does not mean that the way must fail, and certainly not that it must not be tried.

Even the most serious and rigorous part of the Chilean insurrectionary left, the MIR (Movement of the Revolutionary Left), has now turned itself into a pressure group on the left of the Unidad Popular, attempting to radicalize its policy by grassroots mass action, but essentially supporting Allende’s efforts, though it maintains its well-organized apparatus and foresees a future armed confrontation. The MIR does not appear to share the suicidal tendency of the lunatic fringe left to “sharpen the class struggle” so as to produce such a confrontation as soon as possible, after which there would be good old-fashioned revolution or (more likely) total defeat and plenty of heroic martyrdom.2

But the natural sympathy that we feel for the Allende government and the passionate hope for its success should not blind us to the complexities of its situation. Just because Chile may actually be a model for other countries, we must look coldly and realistically at its experience.


The tourist-connoisseur of revolutions who arrives in Santiago these days misses the atmosphere, difficult to define but easy to recognize, of great popular liberations. Apart from some armed students, who do not impinge on the street scene, there are hardly any visible signs of upheaval except on the newsstands. There is none of that familiar explosion of pamphlets, leaflets, and little journals: the contents of the ultra-left bookshop are austere compared to their equivalents in Paris or the US. The unofficial land occupations, though much has been made of them in the press, are negligible, at least in the numbers involved. Usually they are sit-ins of between ten and twenty people. There is no visible outbreak of official posters, portraiture, and banners, and no more than the usual quantity of unofficial political graffiti. In fact, Chile at first sight looks much as it did in, say, 1969. The official explanation that Chileans are undemonstrative, a Latin version of Vermont Yankees, carries little conviction. They may not be Caribbean in their ebullience, but when they feel like it, they don’t sit on their hands either.

The nearest thing to the Chilean mood, as it can be sensed by the casual visitor, is the mood of the early months (but not the first weeks) after the French Popular Front victory in 1936 or after the Labour victory in Britain in 1945. It is one of solid satisfaction among the organized left, quiet and unmessianic expectation among the unorganized poor, and hysteria among the rich and the spokesmen of the right. The immediate emotion of victory has subsided, the phase of troubles and loss of morale, though predictable and predicted, has not yet arrived. Things are better for the poor: so far the UP government has paid off and they know it.

On the other hand, except perhaps in some of the highly organized and politically conscious factories, mines, and country settlements, life remains pretty much as it was. The former ruling class knows that it no longer rules, however, and it projects its fears of annihilation into those predictions of totalitarianism and slavery that are no more than the rhetorical small change of a country where parliamentary electioneering and political discussion are a popular sport of the middle class, as golf is elsewhere. On the extreme fringe of the right—and it is highly visible on the newsstands—this rhetoric reaches paranoiac heights of scurrility and lunatic accusation: terror already stalks the land, the police are supporting groups of left-wing assassins, and so on.

But what has actually happened?

The first thing to note is that the UP came into office under two grave political handicaps. It barely won a plurality—indeed it polled about 3 percent fewer votes than in the lost election of 1964—and therefore found itself with insufficient popular backing as well as with a Congress controlled by its opponents, not to mention armed forces only just held in check by the unquestionable legality and constitutionality of the UP’s status. It has to operate exclusively with the powers and laws of its predecessors. It could and can pass new laws only with opposition agreement or when they cannot be opposed, like the nationalization of copper, against which no Chilean politician would go on public record any more than he would publicly vote for polygamy.

  1. 1

    La Via Chilena, del primer mensaje del President Allende al Congreso Pleno, 21 de Mayo 1971 (Santiago, 1971). Cited here as Message.

  2. 2

    Cf. the MIR statement disavowing the assassination of the former Christian Democrat Minister of the Interior by the VOP, a small terrorist group. Punto Final, June 22, 1971.

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