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…
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