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Books: Salvador Allende: Revolutionary Democrat

CARLOS MARTINEZ is impressed by a new biography of the great Chilean leader Salvador Allende

Salvador Allende: Revolutionary Democrat

by Victor Figueroa Clark

(Pluto Press, £12.99)

The record of Salvador Allende and the Popular Unity government he led in Chile from 1970 to 1973 still elicits much debate on the left.

Refusing to follow any prescribed model for advancing to socialism, Allende insisted on an electoral road. This in spite of the fact that such a road had not succeeded elsewhere and that Marx had famously pronounced that "the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes."

In building a broad coalition of socialist, communist and progressive nationalist forces that was able to win a bourgeois election and initiate major economic and social reforms, Allende seemed to prove his critics wrong. But, in failing to prevent the vicious counter-revolution that followed, he seemed to prove them right.

On that basis, many have viewed the Popular Unity experiment as final proof that there is no electoral road to socialism.

But Victor Figueroa Clark, in his book Salvador Allende: Revolutionary Democrat, argues convincingly that this analysis is simplistic and leads people to ignore some of the key aspects of "Allendismo," the substance of which is simply a creative and pragmatic application of Marxism and anti-imperialism to the concrete conditions prevailing in Chile at the time.

Allende was not a pacifist and he didn't have any principled objection to armed struggle. Indeed, he was close friends with Fidel Castro and a reliable friend of Cuba, China, Vietnam, North Korea and the Soviet Union, all of which he had visited.

Figueroa notes that Allende, visiting Cuba a few months after the revolution, was given a copy of Che Guevara's Guerilla Warfare, in which Che had written: "To Salvador Allende, who seeks the same ends by different means."

Yet Allende understood that the regional balance of forces did not favour a traditional revolutionary model in Chile. Having been caught off-guard by the Cuban revolution, the CIA was policing its "backyard" with extreme vigilance.

Meanwhile, Chile's functioning bourgeois democracy, its particular configuration of political forces and its relatively mature working-class leadership led Allende and others to believe that the best chance to start a process of revolutionary change was via the ballot box.

In just three years of government Popular Unity made some bold steps forward, including the nationalisation of the country's key economic resources, halving unemployment, socialising education and healthcare, initiating a wide-ranging land reform, promoting the rights of women and the indigenous population and bringing Chile into the socialist and non-aligned camp.

But ultimately Allende's dream of a peaceful road to socialism ended in its opposite. From 1973 on, General Pinochet's forces used the most despicable violence to wipe out the left and pave the way for a programme of Chicago School capitalist fundamentalism.

Could Allende have done more to prevent counter-revolution? Should alternative armed forces have been built? Should the army's conservative elements have been rooted out? Or should the far left have closed ranks with Allende and worked harder to build unity with the centre?

With hindsight, such questions may seem easy to answer but at the time there were no simple formulas. Allende knew very well that the revolution needed to be protected but he also knew that, if he moved too fast, he would undermine the very fragile alliance that was allowing the working-class, indigenous and oppressed people to exercise some meaningful political power for the first time in Chile's history.

The fact that Popular Unity was able to achieve so much and leave such a lasting legacy is a reminder that revolution comes in many different forms and each one must take into account thousands of unique factors.

As Ricardo Alarcon, president of the Cuban parliament, stated in a recent interview: "For a long while now, one of the fundamental errors of socialist and revolutionary movements has been the belief that a socialist model exists ... If socialism is to be created, it must respond to realities, motivations, cultures, situations, contexts, all of which are objectives that are different from each other, not identical."

What the fall of Allende does show is that revolutions do not exist in isolation and that sometimes the prevailing regional and global conditions simply do not allow them to survive. And yet Allende's legacy lives on, most prominently in the ongoing socialist experiments in Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador and elsewhere.

Well written and thoroughly researched, Salvador Allende: Revolutionary Democrat is an important contribution to a crucial debate and pays due tribute to a great leader of the left.


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