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A Special Supplement: Chile: Year One

The fourth objective of the government is not to be overthrown. The danger of a military coup, though present, does not seem immediate. The main reason for this is not the army’s sense of constitutional propriety, which exists, but the knowledge that it would lead to civil war. It is one thing to occupy some streets and buildings quietly and bundle the president onto the next plane abroad, but quite another to start an unpredictable armed conflict.

Here lies perhaps the main advantage of a legal Marxist government, as distinct from that of ordinary civilian populist reformers, whose actual short-term policy may not be very different. Such populists have tended to abdicate when the logical but unintended confrontation with the right followed: in Brazil Vargas committed suicide, Quadros retired, Goulart fled.13 Marxist reformers know that social transformation will face such challenges, are prepared to face them—at least we must hope so—and consequently they diminish the risk of such coups.

There is not much the UP can do about the armed forces, except to put the police under politically reliable control and to surround the President with a strong bodyguard recruited from political cadres (mostly former MIRists) which could gain a few precious hours while the masses were being mobilized. Both these measures have been greeted with hysterical abuse by the right. Whether the UP could win a civil war if it came to that point is another question, but in the short run its obvious determination discourages militarist adventures.

The right would therefore prefer not to return to power by armed insurgency; certainly this is the Christian Democrat view. The Chilean rulers have benefited too long from a stable and peaceful constitutionalism to throw it lightheartedly out of the window. As it happens there is at present a promising alternative strategy: to reunite the anti-Marxist forces, whose split gave Allende the election, and to vote the formidable Frei back into the presidency in 1976. The prospect is realistic. If the UP cannot substantially increase its solid support, and especially if its marginal support is eroded by the predictable economic troubles of 1972-3, then the right could win a straight electoral fight in 1973, thus perpetuating its control of Congress and its power of delay and sabotage. In other words, all the opposition has to do according to this analysis is to wait for the UP to run out of steam. It is the classical strategy for ruining popular fronts, and it has worked before.

The immediate objective would therefore be an anti-left victory in 1973, followed by a long lame-duck presidency. This, rather than short-term confrontation, is what realists in the UP are worried about, although nobody overlooks the threat of straight counterrevolution. There is cause for worry, even if the right overestimates the probability of economic breakdown, as it has consistently overestimated the government’s economic troubles since 1970, and been disagreeably surprised by its substantial successes. What can Allende do about the threat from the right? More than is being done now.


Many of the problems of the UP are beyond its effective control, but there are three things that are not.

The first is its tempo. Revolutionary transformations depend on establishing and maintaining initiative. Constitutional revolutions are no different from any others in this respect. They must, merely, like chess offensives, maintain initiative within a given set of rules. It seems to me that the UP has not yet established this tempo. The election campaign generated its own impetus, which was reinforced by the enormous and unexpected satisfaction of victory and the failure of the attempts to stop Allende from taking office. Conversely, unexpected defeat and a genuine terror of revolution demoralized and temporarily paralyzed the Chilean right. For a few months it had no effective strategy at all, and did little but run for cover. Again, the UP had a program and the need to push it ahead in its first year carried it along for a while, at least until the difficulties of application began to emerge.

So far the UP has rolled along under this initial, and in a sense extrinsic, impetus. As it exhausts itself, it must be replaced by intrinsic strategic initiative. Any reforming government tends to start, at least potentially, with such a burst of speed. Nonrevolutionary administrations cannot easily replace it once it is exhausted, and some, like the British Labour government of 1964, throw it away. Failing to generate this impetus, such governments find themselves pressed onto the defensive by domestic and foreign adversaries and the hazards of the world, such as balance-of-payments crises. Then they are lost. They will fade away, like so many of the old popular fronts, amid growing internal bickering; or will provide the conditions for their overthrow. In 1970 and 1971 the UP did not need to generate its moving force, but from now on it must.

This is made difficult by the fact that the UP is a coalition: its second serious weakness. To put it bluntly, the UP is a vehicle better designed for braking than for movement. In order to prevent any party (read: the CP) from establishing exclusive control over any part of government, all jobs were distributed on a rigid quota system, so that no official has an immediate superior or immediate subordinate from his own party. In order to prevent any party (once again, read: the CP) from dominating policy, “the action of the President and the parties and movements forming the government will be coordinated by a Political Committee of all these forces,” which will be responsible for considering “the practicability and application [operatividad] of the government’s economic and social measures and those concerning public order and international policy, as well as more especially the means by which they are realized.”14

What this means is that each department and agency of state consists of intertwined rival party machines. Each official gives his primary loyalty to one of these, through which he seeks to operate, by-passing the others where possible, neutralizing them where this is impossible. Disputes must be solved by interparty negotiation and major ones tend to go to the top. It also means incidentally a) that the relatively few nonparty ministers or officials must attach themselves to one machine or another to get things done, and b) that it is extremely difficult to fire the numerous political appointees who turn out to be no good at their jobs, but are protected by the need to maintain the balance of the quota system.

Above all, it means that anything not specifically provided for in the pre-election pact is hard and slow to get formulated, and that quick and unambiguous decisions are almost impossible to make. The effect of this paralysis is disastrous, notably in agricultural reform. Any government that cannot make decisions rapidly is in trouble, but a revolutionary government that cannot is in very bad trouble.

Admittedly mutual trust between the parties is today much greater than it was before the election. Even the MIR has come to terms and established a working relationship with both the Socialists and the CP—a relation, however, that is better with one than with the other, since in MIR opinion (which is obvious truth), “it is possible to have organ-relations with the CP leading to rational agreements.” Such relations are not easy to establish with the Socialists, whose party is little more than a complex of rival groups, patronage systems, and political baronies, virtually incapable of acting as a party. Its main problem today lies on its left wing. Unlike the MIR, few of the clans on the Socialist Party left are serious revolutionaries, in spite of Guevarist and ultra-left rhetoric. Some would say—I quote a disillusioned nonpartisan progressive—that “they are people who can’t get used to the idea of being the government, since it was so much simpler to be in opposition.” Some less sympathetic observers would add that leftism is an easy way out for people who find they are no good at their new government jobs.

How important the left is within the Socialist Party is difficult to estimate. The left certainly elected the new General Secretary earlier this year, though Mr. Carlos Altamirano, who clearly aims to be the next presidential candidate of the UP (no Chilean president can serve two successive terms), is unlikely to identify himself with any one section of the party. The Socialist left is likely to be strengthened by the desire to compete with the CP, which can most easily be outflanked on that side, and by a familiar form of reaction to the disappointments and uncertainties of popular government. If the left, or any of its groups, were to gain genuine control of the party, this would be at least one solution to the perennial problem of the party’s disunity This is unlikely, and so the best hope lies in Allende, whose position (if only as the real vote getter) gives him considerable leverage in his party. Unfortunately he has so far been extremely slow to use this leverage.

In brief, the UP suffers from the familiar weaknesses of party alliances and coalitions in a parliamentary democracy. It is organizationally unsuited to the tasks it has accepted. The “Chilean road to socialism” does not necessarily imply a single, still less a monolithic, party of the left, and anyway this is not a realistic possibility. But it does imply giving the existing alliance greater unity of decision and action.

Third, the UP has so far failed to mobilize the masses adequately in its support. It has, once again, reflected the weaknesses of its historical parents, bourgeois parliamentary democracy and the classical socialist labor movement. Parliamentary politicians think of mass mobilization essentially as getting votes. Traditional working-class leaders think of the union or party pulling the fellows out of mines and plants on to the streets. (One might add that the historical complement of both is a kind of leftism that rejects both elections and mobilization through “bureaucratic” organizations and proposes instead to multiply grassroots mass action irrespective of circumstances.)

None of these is adequate for revolutionary purposes, least of all in countries where national elections may not be part of popular political culture or where the organized industrial proletariat is not the typical form of the laboring poor. All the traditions emerging out of liberalism and the classical socialist labor movement have, moreover, been suspicious of the charismatic style, the personalized politics, the face-to-crowd rapport, not to mention the freewheeling demagogy, which have normally accompanied the effective mobilization of “the marginal.”

In the UP there is a lot of talk about how to get more votes in future elections or how to formulate a plebiscite that will win a majority; there is even a tendency to take otherwise minor electoral contests more seriously than they deserve. There is much planning about how to mobilize organized workers through the unions, about the best way to set up peasant councils or various factory committees. Conversely, on the left there is a rather simple belief that all will be well if only “the struggle is transferred fundamentally to the factories, the estates, the slum settlements, the high schools and universities.”

But the fact is that the unorganized poor between elections are not as yet constantly involved with the government, that government is not constantly present for them. There is no equivalent of Fidel Castro’s perpetual if one-sided dialogue with his people, or of FDR’s regular fireside talks over the radio. This is not merely a matter of rhetorical style. A rabble-rousing technique is not necessary, and may not even be desirable, for the maintenance of such permanent conversation between a popular government and its people. What is at issue is a style of politics rather than of oratory or campaigning.

This is a problem that concerns President Allende as an individual more than the UP, although the suspicions of excessive presidentialism among his comrades and coalition partners may have to be overcome. (They might recall that the masses who became Democrats in the US because of FDR did not stop being Democrats after his death: personalized politics can precipitate permanent organizational changes of allegiance.)

The unorganized laboring poor will listen to Allende, because he has the prestige, power, and paternal function of any president, and because he represents a government that is demonstrably on their side. They can be mobilized most readily as a national force by him, and they can be turned into a permanent and decisive national force, which is what Peron achieved in Argentina. He may have to choose a rather different personal style from his friend Fidel, but he should not forget one of the few lessons of the Cuban Revolution that are applicable in Chile, namely, that a leader capable of speaking directly to the most remote and least political of his poor fellow citizens is a major asset for any revolution, and probably indispensable for one that cannot coerce people but must persuade them.15


How can one sum up the first year of the Chilean Way? It has demonstrated what hardly required proof, namely, that a left-wing alliance can be voted into office. It has demonstrated something more important, namely, that it can thereafter act with some speed and decision in spite of lacking control of the armed forces and crucial parts of the constitutional machinery. It has demonstrated a determination to proceed with the construction of socialism, though its first year has not taken it beyond the boundaries of non-socialist reform.

So far what it has done is not qualitatively very different from what several other Latin American governments have done, are doing, or could well make up their minds to do. But unlike other reforming governments, it is based firmly on the working-class movement, and its primary inspiration is not nationalism or “modernization” but the emancipation of the exploited, the oppressed, the weak, and the poor. It has demonstrated considerable intelligence and political skill. Finally, its achievements, especially in the economic field, are substantial.

These things do not guarantee its success. It is plainly, like most under-or rather mis-developed semicolonial countries, at the mercy of forces beyond its control, e.g., the copper market, to which it is all the more sensitive because Chile is after all, by the standards of the Third World, a highly urbanized and industrialized country with a complex social structure and modern consumption patterns. We do not yet know whether it is capable of overcoming the peculiar economic stagnation (combined in this case with permanent high inflation) that it shares with the rest of the “southern cone” of Latin America, and for that matter with Britain, on whose economy this area was dependent for so long. Experience shows that such long-term weaknesses are more difficult to remedy than policy makers think. Nor do we yet know how the Chilean Way can overcome the major problem of underdeveloped economies, the lag of jobs behind population. The short-term difficulties of production, while serious, are not in themselves decisive.

Politically, the Chilean Way has not yet shown that a popular front, however dynamic and well-intentioned, is a revolution, however constitutional. It remains fettered not only by outside forces but by the nature of the political system and situation out of which it has emerged and the political forces which have combined to form it. No doubt it is too early to judge it. It has not yet been tested in serious crisis and by genuine challenge, and the UP’s capacity to overcome its present weaknesses of style, organization, and policy should not be underestimated. The next year may shake it, and may also transform it. But it will not be transformed spontaneously.

It is hardly worth speculating in detail on the nature of these crises and challenges. This must be left to Chileans, and to journalists who report the scene day by day. Can the UP overcome them? Its opponents, including almost certainly the US government, are convinced that it cannot. Chilean government leaders and political figures are cautiously optimistic or, perhaps better, not pessimistic, even in private. So are some very able and politically uninvolved Chileans I talked to. A betting man who allowed his natural sympathy for Allende to bias his judgment a little would perhaps offer odds of 6 to 4 against, which is not discouraging. If he kept his sympathies entirely out of the transaction, he might perhaps offer 2 to 1 against. Even that is a great deal more than anyone would have offered to bet on the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution. Or, for that matter, on Salvador Allende’s victory thirteen months ago.


Help for Allende November 18, 1971

  1. 13

    This point was made forcibly to me by a former Brazilian minister, who has discussed it at length with Allende.

  2. 14

    Labarca Goddard, Al Chile Rojo, p. 235.

  3. 15

    Allende’s own answer to the same observation, made by Régis Debray, does not strike me as convincing. Allende argued that the DC government had exploited radio and television so much that the public had become bored, and anyway, “I don’t want my government to become a one-man show by the comrade President.” He also pointed out that the government was subject to “fairly strict limitations” by the television authority; and that “without setting myself any preconceived plans,” he had made quite frequent public appearances. At the time of the Debray interviews he planned to “concentrate on doing this for important issues.” Cf. Conversations with Allende (Pantheon, 1971), pp. 114-5.

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