Salvador Allende
Salvador Allende; drawing by David Levine


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.

Indeed, in some respects the government’s hands are more tied than before, by the Constitutional Amendment of January, 1971, which is the price it paid the Christian Democrats for being allowed to take office. This episode is clearly described in the most useful book on the antecedents of the Allende victory, Eduardo Labarca Goddard’s Al Chile Rojo.3 The existing powers admittedly include the possibility of asking for a plebiscite to override Congressional opposition, but the slim plurality of the Allende government—even though the municipal elections of 1971 show it to have been transformed into the slimmest of majorities—makes this a somewhat unpredictable device.

Such a situation happens to suit the gifts of Salvador Allende, who is, among other things, a brilliant and sophisticated politician of the orthodox kind, entirely at home with all the strategies and tactics of the possible in party caucus and Congress. Moreover, he has the immense and quite justified self-confidence of the man who has made it against all probability and prediction—nobody believed he could win and his own party at one point tried to drop him as a candidate. For such a man it is nothing to come to office with both hands tied behind his back—one by the opposition which controls Congress and the judiciary, the other by the elaborate formulas of his own mutually suspicious and divergent coalition. Much can be done within the limits of existing powers.

Constitutionality and legality provide Chilean presidents with a remarkable amount of scope, including some 17,000 valid laws among which legal ingenuity can discover much that is useful. Thus the UP has relied extensively on a decree, never repealed, of the two-week-long “Socialist Republic” of 1932, a brief left-wing interlude during the worst part of the Great Depression led by the remarkably named Col. Marmaduke Grove.4 This statute permits the government to take over any factory or industry that “fails to supply the people” with its goods and services. The decree has been used to nationalize large sectors of industry where necessary, after the workers have occupied the relevant factories thus ensuring that they could not “supply the people.” Even without legal authority, “the resources of civilization are not exhausted” (as the British premier Gladstone is reported to have said when finding means of putting the Irish leader Parnell in jail).

Most of the banking system not already under public control has been nationalized by the simple device, apparently unexpected by the opposition, of the government’s buying up a majority of shares at market prices and then running the banks as their new proprietor. (This device has aroused an entirely irrational fury among businessmen, who consider tactics they use themselves as somehow unfair when practiced by a socialist government.) In one way or another the UP has therefore pushed ahead rapidly with its program without as yet having to rely on the good will of the opposition.

Such rapid progress would of course have been impossible but for the policy of the Christian Democrats in 1964-70. It is an error to suppose that the UP found itself faced with either “feudalism” or a simple economy of competitive private enterprise, or that any progressive government in any country, and especially an underdeveloped one, is likely today to do so. Chile was already a country theoretically dominated by its public sector, which provided some 70 percent of all investment, employed a large proportion of the population directly, and was engaged upon fairly drastic interference with domestic and foreign private property.

The road to any kind of economic development in Latin America leads through radical social reforms, a growing importance of government in the economy, and some control over foreign capital, which do not in themselves imply socialism. Thus the UP did not need to pass an agrarian reform law, but could merely accelerate the rather hesitant progress of the existing law. The UP possesses not merely a supply of general powers, but has at its disposal many specific laws and institutions which can be adapted to suit its purpose. It can establish and maintain a good rhythm of action, avoiding—at least for the crucial first year or so—the jaws of the opposition which controls Congress and the courts.

The second political handicap of the UP is intimately connected with the first. In addition to insufficient support it has inadequate reserves of political loyalty. Numerically it may now count on about half the voters, a distinct improvement on September, 1970, but still slim backing for the crises of revolutionary constitutional politics. It has one solid core of supporters: the industrial and urban proletariat, especially the miners, and the organized and now unified labor unions.5 Here alone—in spite of the existence of a few moderate and business-unionist groups that raise economic rather than political problems, as among the copper miners—can Allende call upon those reserves of long-term commitment that carry parties and governments across the bad patches of their careers. The classical proletariat of this type is larger and better organized in Chile than in most other Latin American countries, large enough indeed to provide a base for government; but it is a minority of the population.

The support of the other three decisive sectors of the population is either conditional, unreliable, or absent. The countryside (about 30 percent of the people) remains predominantly anti-Allendist, in spite of substantial gains by the left in recent years, especially among rural proletarians. The political effect of rapid agrarian reform will almost certainly be to deepen the divisions within this sector. However, the government could probably get along without it.

The rather large middle strata, consisting mostly of white-collar workers, many in public employment—perhaps 12 percent of the Chileans work in government—would accept a socialist government as much as any other. They have no overwhelming commitment to a society of private enterprise, though probably some strong anti-communist prejudices exist among them, and no sense of identity with those who are poorer. On the other hand they have to be convinced that socialist power will last, or at least that it will recur as often as nonsocialist governments. They are not yet convinced of this.

The major body of unmobilized support for the left consists of those miscellaneous and unclassifiable laboring poor who are being generated in ever growing numbers by a process of economic growth and social change that fails to provide enough corresponding employment. Politico-social jargon tends to define them as “semi-proletarians” (sometimes even as “Lumpenproletarians”), or by referring to the shantytowns and do-it-yourself settlements in which so many of them live (pobladores), or just negatively as “the marginal population.” They are not marginal but central to Latin American society, even in Chile. This stratum puzzles the traditional left, since it is plainly not being absorbed by any spontaneous historic process into a classical “proletariat”: it is not organizable by the familiar methods of, e.g., labor unions or held together by some ideology of class consciousness like Marxism.

Unions are of marginal importance to such people, because their conditions of work do not make them easy to organize, and hence they do not belong to the aristocracy of relatively well-paid, unionized, and militantly radical proletarians such as the miners (that 4 to 5 percent of the working population whose role in Chilean left politics is so disproportionately important, as Petras has shown). Their own embryonically political populism, radical but—except in local community organization—not democratic, has in the past been most easily mobilized into a mass movement by demagogic presidents or ex-presidents, preferably military. It is a mistake to think of their politics as purely operational, but there is no doubt that a leader with patronage and the ability to deliver roads and water for shantytowns or welfare payments for their inhabitants, speedily and with some éclat, attracts them more than one who can’t.

But whatever the difficulty of mobilizing them by means of the traditional labor and socialist movement, these people are a natural constituency of the left, because they are poor and they work.6 What is more, now that the peasantry is a rapidly shrinking force, they are increasingly the decisive sector of the Latin American masses. The Christian Democrats managed to make some appeal to them. To judge by the municipal elections of 1971, the UP has not yet converted them en masse.


What has the Allende government achieved so far? What has it been trying to do? It has been and is acutely aware of the narrow limits of time. Consequently the government concentrates practically all its thinking on that period of between six months and three years within which, according to various assessments, its fate will be decided.7 There is not yet much concrete thinking beyond this point, which is a pity.

In the first place, short-range policy is based on the agreed program of the six parties of the UP, an elaborate platform negotiated with great difficulty before the election but now binding. Nobody knows what would emerge from the next stage of argument, and sensible politicians try to postpone it. Admittedly two of the six parties in the UP are now negligible, while the Radicals, down to 8 percent of the vote, are reduced and in disarray. But the left-wing ex-Christian Democrat element in the coalition is by no means insignificant, in spite of the electoral weakness of its representatives in the UP, if only because it represents many votes that must be captured. Moreover, while Allende probably sees eye to eye on major questions with the powerful CP, the core of the UP and by far its most effective and rational component, divergences among various sectors of his Socialist Party and between them and the Communists are substantial.

In the second place, the government knows perfectly well that the unusually favorable political situation within Chile and internationally, which allowed it to come to office and has largely paralyzed its opponents in the US ever since, will probably not last long. So far the armies have maneuvered for position. Sooner or later the government will come to confrontation and battle, though not necessarily in the naïve form anticipated by ultra-left apocalyptics—e.g., a military coup against mass resistance, or a foreign armed invasion.8 The short run is within range of prediction; even the medium run is not.

Third, but of course most urgent, the economic problems of Chile will be at their most acute during the next two years. These problems derive from two characteristics of semicolonial countries that unfortunately exist in an exaggerated form in Chile: its dependence on a single export commodity and the inefficiency of agriculture, which makes it (like other South American countries) an increasingly large importer of basic foodstuffs. Eighty percent of Chile’s foreign income depends on the price of copper. About a third of its imports (in value) consists of food, and since Chileans under the UP eat spectacularly better than before, this quantity will rise.

There is virtually nothing that Chile can do in the short run about the price of copper, which has to stay well above forty cents if the calculations of the planners are to come out right. A great many things, including the end of the Vietnam war, could cause the market to drop for a sufficiently long time to be catastrophic. However, even if the market holds, there will certainly be an acute balance-of-payments crisis in 1972, which for various reasons, however, is expected to be less acute in 1973.

Unfortunately the two obvious ways of minimizing this crisis, exporting more copper and cutting imports, are very difficult. Copper production will not expand as much as is desirable or planned. Farm production will be lucky to remain stable. The boom in domestic spending will raise the demand for industrial raw materials, which is the other large item in the import trade. Chilean leaders are fairly optimistic about overcoming the transitional difficulties in copper and agricultural production, which are the most pressing of their economic problems. Even cautious politicians reckon that this shouldn’t take more than three years. But those three years will be difficult and crucial, and will keep their minds fully occupied.


In this situation the government has pursued four objectives:

First, it has aimed to introduce irreversible “structural changes” in the economy within its first year. The theory behind this appears to be a rather simple economic determinism. As one minister put it: “If we deprive the bourgeoisie of its economic base, it will not be able to return.” The method has been essentially the expropriation and, outside agriculture, nationalization of key economic activities. The UP is by its program committed to a three-part structure of the economy: a dominant public sector, a mixed public-private sector, mostly in the areas where technical progress and heavy investment in equipment and know-how (including those from abroad) are essential, and a private sector of, it is hoped, dynamic small and medium business.9 By now copper, nitrates, coal, iron, banking, cement, a good part of textiles, and a number of other firms have been taken over in one way or another, and foreign trade will presumably have to be nationalized.

Second, the Allende government has aimed to stimulate production and therefore employment, and at the same time raise the standard of living, by stimulating demand, i.e., by combining a sharp increase in money wages with a price freeze. The government assumed, on the whole correctly, that Chilean industry was working with a sufficiently large unused capacity to make this possible without immediate new investment, which private business was obviously not going to undertake. Giving more money to the poor, it was argued, would stimulate employment disproportionately, since they were in the market for commodities with a more labor-intensive production than the more sophisticated hardware of the middle-class market. It must never be forgotten that no more than 300,000 of the 9 million Chileans were the effective customers for industry.

This plan was risky, and during the first few dramatic months after September 4, when bourgeois hysteria led to mass flights of capital and a temporary collapse of production, it did not look promising. However, by the spring of 1971 the policy worked, to the enormous relief of the government and surprise of foreign observers, not to mention the striking benefit of the Chilean people. Unemployment was lower than it had been for ten years and, except for some serious planning troubles that delayed the revival of the construction industries, would have been even lower. The standard of living of the poor rose dramatically. Even the consumption of flour (i.e., bread) rose by 15 percent. The critics point out that with the increase in production Chile’s endemic inflation also revived. It used to run at 25 to 30 percent a year, and during Frei’s last year at 35 percent. Still, this year it will be no more than half of this. Domestic economic policy has so far been the most significant success of the Allende regime.

To demonstrate the material advantage of a popular government is indispensable for the UP since it must present itself at free elections. Allende cannot, even if he wanted to, impose the material sacrifices on his people that the Cubans have made for the past several years. This sets very narrow limits to government policy, though some of its followers are unwilling to admit this. The Communists, being the most realistic, take the view that during this presidency rapid heavy industrialization must be subordinated to light and consumer goods. Allende probably agrees, but the matter continues to be debated. Whether raising the standard of living alone will provide a government of legal revolutionaries with adequate support is another question.

The third objective follows from this calculation. The government must raise output, especially of copper and farm produce, in order to at least maintain the supply of food and consumer goods. Here again Allende and the CP see eye to eye. Since rationing or an uncontrolled sharp cutback in imports would be political suicide, the “battle for production” is the first priority. However, copper and agriculture pose rather different problems.

Most Chilean copper comes from three great mines formerly owned by US companies—El Teniente, Chuquicamata, and Salvador. Since last September output has been poor, which is a serious matter, and costs have risen steeply, which is less serious.10 To what degree this situation is caused by sabotage by Kennecott and Anaconda, or, more plausibly, by their attempts to cream off the easy and profitable deposits in anticipation of expropriation, is a matter of argument. Certainly it is a consequence of widespread noncooperation by executives and supervisory personnel—about 300 are said by the opposition to have resigned—especially those who used to be paid in US dollars, which they then exchanged on the free and now black market for increasingly astronomic quantities of escudos. Inevitably the effect of stopping these dollar payments to Chileans has been to lower the real income of such people, in spite of the government’s unenthusiastic readiness to pay them almost any salaries in escudos. (In the summer of 1971 the unofficial exchange rate was already over three times the pegged official rate.)

But the difficulties also arise from the collective self-interest of the small labor aristocracy of copper miners, who did well enough out of the enclave economy of the US corporations and are not likely to do relatively as well in the future. Whether or not they actually supported Frei’s Christian Democrat government (and in Chuquicamata the UP failed to poll a majority in the presidential election), the spontaneous syndicalism of such groups tends to operate easily at the expense of the wider popular interest. The strikes of workers and technicians that broke out during the past summer reflect both factors.

The problem of farm output is much more complex. The Christian Democrat government had generally subordinated the rate of agrarian reform to the raising of output, which it did with substantial success. Only 30,000 families out of the quarter of a million of the landless and minifundists received land. Consequently by the end of Frei’s presidency the accumulating agrarian discontent was already exploding in a burst of land occupations and other rural conflicts. Even if Allende had not won, either land reform would have had to be speeded up or major trouble would have developed in the countryside. The UP has accelerated land reform, but at an immediate cost to output, as is usual in such cases.

The extent of the disruption in output is hard to judge, partly because it cannot be disentangled from the effects of some dramatic natural catastrophes during the first half of 1971, partly because these things are a matter of guesswork anyway. The disruption was due to sabotage or to realization of capital by those fearing expropriation—especially during the fall of 1970 when a lot of dairy and breeding stock was sold off for meat—to the uncertainty of the middle peasants about their prospects, and to the demoralization of peasants in the sector where land reform took place. This in turn was caused by the UP’s failure to apply any single or clear policy. When any meeting of agrarian reform officials is likely to turn into an ideological-programmatic argument over rival tendencies, peasants are likely to feel that the old government may have been slow, but at least a man knew who made the decisions and what they were.

The more suicidal or utopian elements in the UP have even exaggerated the extent of this disruption, talking wildly, and not only implausibly but without evidence, of a 50 percent drop in output in the reformed sector that, they argue, will be more than compensated by the progress of rural class struggle.11 The best estimate is that there may be some decline in output, though the official view is that the sowing this spring (our fall) will compensate for the drop in the last fall (our spring) sowing, which may be around 10 percent. The government reaction has been to slow down the initially very rapid expropriation of land, in order to get the 700 or so estates that were effectively taken over (out of the 900 or so expropriated) into production. Official expropriations have been stopped until after April, 1972. As for unofficial ones, the government’s view is that of Allende’s Message:

The indiscriminate occupations of estates and farms are unnecessary and prejudicial. What we have said and done should be enough to make people have confidence in us. Hence the plans of the government and their implementation should be respected. (Message, p. 18.)

On this point Allende (supported by the CP) clashes with the left opposition of the MIR and also with elements in the left wing of his own party.

Allende’s view assumes that the occupations are controllable. Probably they are, for they are only to a small extent the product of unmanageable grassroots unrest. Of the 150 or so occupations recorded on a day chosen at random in the summer of 197112 about 25 or 30 percent were attempts by Mapuche Indians to recuperate lost communal lands, which is certainly the most spontaneous part of agrarian agitation now, but even so not—or no longer—a mass movement. These sit-ins involved perhaps 700 to 800 individuals in all, and only three of them mobilized more than a hundred, which is peanuts by the usual Latin American standards of peasant land occupation.

The others were partly occupations by landless peasants demanding expropriations for their benefit, but mainly incidents in rural labor disputes in which landownership was not at issue. No more than a handful of people is involved in an occupation of either type. The tomas de fundos make foreign headlines, because they suggest riot and anarchy and because some fairly colorful figures on the uncontrollable fringes of the ultra-left are active in them, but at present Chile is a long way from rural insurrection.

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.

This Issue

September 23, 1971