A mindless martyrology — Allende and left amnesia

Just a reminder to the pseudo-leftists who are gleefully getting off by trolling right-wing patriotic conservatives, urging them to remember “the real 9/11” (the 1973 Pinochet coup against the Salavador Allende government in Chile). Please don’t let the dearth of revolutionary figures in recent memory lead you to claim false martyrs for your canon:

The UP [Unidad Popular, the coalition that helped bring Allende into office] was a classic popular front, an alliance of reformist workers parties, chiefly the SP and Communist Party (CP), with bourgeois forces — the small Radical Party as well as some Christian Democrats. The Allende government was not, as maintained by reformists around the world, a ‘people’s government’ gradually introducing socialism. It was a government committed to the maintenance of capitalism. The presence of bourgeois parties in the UP coalition was a guarantee to the capitalists that the workers parties would not take any steps to threaten the profit system.

Even before assuming office, Allende signed an agreement pledging not to permit the formation of ‘private’ armed forces — i.e., workers militias. The Allende government disarmed the workers by seizing their weapons and by sowing illusions in a ‘peaceful road to socialism.’ This cleared the way for the bourgeoisie to crush the working class.

By pointing this out, I do not in any way intend to diminish the historical significance of Pinochet’s US-backed military coup, which as an event was a massacre and led to more than three decades of institutionalized reaction. The Pinochet government was a Bonapartist throwback, almost textbook. My intention is not to ridicule the memory of a murdered man, populist pygmy though Allende was, so much as it is to draw attention to the selective amnesia of hero-mongering leftists.

Allende with Pinochet in 1973

Or, as someone else put it, albeit a bit more disparagingly: “Somehow no one can find it in their recollection that this idiot — Allende — refused to arm the workers, consistently tried to keep workers’ organizations arms-free, and he is the one who literally appointed Pinochet chief of staff of the army (oops).”

Personally, in times like these, I always look to the hardened kernel of Spart ultra-orthodoxy for clarity of vision. “Popular Front paved the way for Pinochet terror” the title says it all, really.

21 thoughts on “A mindless martyrology — Allende and left amnesia

  1. “My intention is not to ridicule the memory of a murdered man, populist pygmy though Allende was”, gotta love that bolshy vitriol :-p

  2. I completely agree.

    Although I’d like to add that talk of a “real 9/11” and the idea that the bloody coup of Pinochet somehow puts the islamist terrorist attack of 9/11 “into perspective” would be completely idiotic, even if the Allende government had in fact been a revolutionary one.

  3. We must try to understand chilean way to socialism in the context of chilean social process that extend between 1920―1970.

    I disagree with this sentence “It was a government committed to the maintenance of capitalism”. Socialist Party and MIR (an organization outside UP) were pushing Allende to make rushing changes, but he tried to maintain a moderate stance in an increasingly polarized climate, where elites were already conspiring with CIA.

    Finally, in my particular perception (and having in mind chilean culture), Allende is not considered a martyr in the sense of self sacrifice, but a prominent victim of a violent imposition of capitalism.

  4. Although I generally agree that today the left should build forward rather than endlessly and masochistically complain about “the mistakes of the past” and deify its former leaders, your quote (unstated source) is far from accurate. The Christian Democrats were never part of UP coalition (only a small portion of their student branch which formed MAPU [Popular Unitary Action Movement]) and they were active in their support (money, media, and resources) to the coup. Another thing was the fact that the military acted autonomously (it was one of the points on the document Allende signed to get the majority of congress ratification; yes, it was another “mistake” but was there any choice?) in the search for arms they actually never found in worker-managed factories.

    A more general critique (which made me confront trotskyts, leninists and other groups in the past) is the “pseudo-vanguardism” that condemns left populism in Latin America as reformist, centrist, etc. on the basis of the myth of “a single working-class party” led by “the vanguard” its derived bureaucratic state. In my view, the so called “Chilean road to socialism” was full of revolutionary rhetoric, but we shouldn’t forget it never attempted to actually “build it” (another mistake?), but “build towards” (and, in this sense, it was “reformist”, though I wouldn’t say “social-democrat” in any meaningful historical sense). I’m not saying it’s strictly a good thing for the left over here, but for better or worse, populism (popular frontism and the like) isn’t something that could be thrown away just like that. The whole Chilean left was built upon it in a context of anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, and left nationalism that it’s obviously unthinkable for a first world country (the 1920-1970 process of Francisco mentions). I’m Chilean and I don’t consider myself an “Allendist” but one thing is to have a critical take on a historical conjuncture (it was the sad resolution of national and international class struggle in the context of the cold war and US paranoia about loosing control over Latin America, and the ultimate failure of reformism as a strategy for the left) and another is to do the usual “hypercritical critique” on “mindless martyrology” which, in my view, rests more on passionate moralistic jargon than on a proper non-nostalgic marxist perspective, which I would personally like to read about in this case.

    • I appreciate your skepticism toward the idea that Allende could have acted all that differently. But that raises another problem: is there even anything one can learn from it if it could not have been otherwise? Adopting such a view not only forecloses potentially fruitful criticisms but also entails that Allende could not have been praiseworthy, either. His rise, the crisis, and the overthrow would be foregone conclusions, historical inevitabilities.

      The source for the quote is from Workers’ Vanguard, run by an orthodox Trotskyist group commonly called the Spartacists, who for all their intransigence (or perhaps because of it) tend to offer the most penetrating analysis of contemporary political circumstances from the more “traditional” Left camps. That article was written more recently, on the student movement in Chile, but the article I linked to here actually was republished from a piece Workers’ Vanguard ran in November-December 1970, right after Allende was elected. Its prescience and clarity of vision is uncanny:

      The electoral victory of Dr. Salvador Allende’s Popular Front coalition in Chile poses in sharpest form the issue of revolution or counter-revolution. The Chilean crisis is a fully classic expression of reformism’s attempt to derail the felt needs of the working people for their own government to rule society in their own interests. The revolutionary duty of Marxists in Chile and internationally should be utterly unambiguous. Above all, the experience of the Russian Revolution and of Trotsky’s critiques of the Spanish and French Popular Front governments of 1936 illuminate the objective of revolutionists in such a situation.

      Dr. Allende’s candidacy, which gained a plurality on 4 Sept., was based on a coalition of reformist-labor and liberal-bourgeois parties, including the pro-Moscow Communist Party, Allende’s own somewhat more radical Socialist Party, the very right-wing Social Democrats, the rump of the liberal Radical Party, fragments of the Christian Democrats, etc. To gain confirmation by the Congress, Allende agreed to a series of constitutional amendments at the insistence of the dominant Christian Democrats. Most crucial among these were the prohibition of private militias and the stipulation that no police or military officers will be appointed who were not trained in the established academies.

      With the maintenance of the foundations of the capitalist order thus assured, Congress elected Allende president on 24 October. He has now announced the division of spoils in his 15-man cabinet: the CP gets economic ministries, Allende’s SP the key posts of internal security and foreign affairs, and a bourgeois Radical the ministry of national defense. This is reformism’s answer to the Chilean masses’ years of struggle and their desperate hopes that Allende’s election would open up for them a new way of life, but they will not be held for long inside the Popular Front’s bourgeois straightjacket.

      It is the most elementary duty for revolutionary Marxists to irreconcilably oppose the Popular Front in the election and to place absolutely no confidence in it in power. Any “critical support” to the Allende coalition is class treason, paving the way for a bloody defeat for the Chilean working people when domestic reaction, abetted by international imperialism, is ready. The U.S. imperialists have been able to temporize for the moment — and not immediately try to mobilize a counter-revolutionary coup on the usual Latin American model — because they have softened the anticipated nationalization losses through massive profit-taking over several years. [emphasis added]

      Within reformist workers’ parties there is a profound contradiction between their proletarian base and formal ideology and the class-collaborationist aims and personal appetites of their leaderships. This is why Marxists, when they are not themselves embodied in a mass working-class party, give reformist parties such “critical support” [this is a criticism of the American SWP’s default political orientation] — against overt agents of capital — as will tend to regroup the proletarian base around a revolutionary program. But when these parties enter a coalition government with the parties of capitalism, any such “critical support” would be a betrayal because the coalition has suppressed the class contradiction in the bourgeoisie’s favor. It is our job then to re-create the basis for struggle within such parties by demanding they break with the coalition. This break must be the elementary precondition for even the most critical support.

      Again, just to reiterate, this is from 1970. It’s not just Monday morning quarterbacking after the fact.

      • The key problem here is that the Spartacists are doing some mind-reading of the Chilean masses wants and needs here.

      • Never, EVER, trust Trostkist analysis about South American affairs. Most of the time they use local Trostkyist parties as a source, and most of them are just a mess of vulgar orthodox Marxism mixed with liberal thinking. UP’s antecedents have been valuable for the process in South America (even if they are collapsing right now in 2016) for the resistance of coups and mass media management, recognized by Fidel and Chavez themselves (and they are main figures here, even if we like them or not).

        Your source cite MAPU just as a Christian Democracy faction, but by then it had more in common with Guevarism than the Communist Party itself (which supported a strong state capitalism while sabotaging any workers self-determination outside their party). I have personally known Marxist former MAPU militants.

        I agree most liberals and pseudo-leftist on the north hemisphere wash their mouth praising UP ‘pacifism’ and martyrdom with almost no critical thinking, but that doesn’t turn the complete opposite into a true statement: UP government was a product of historical conditions -imperialist pressures (from Brezhnev and Nixon), the crave for status quo AND fairness from the working class, a semi-feudal/aristocratic system in the countryside mixed developmentalist industrialism in the urban areas…. there are whole ink rivers about the subject (sadly, most of them in Spanish). I really like your blog and I have learn a lot from it, but just don’t talk so lightly about Latin American politics: they cannot be described blindly using European History, just like Russian process could not be understood with a Central European analysis.

  5. Disagree with the sloganeering here, and it’s even inconsistent: if Allende was no revolutionary, how can Pinochet be a Bonaparte? Or are we dealing here with a farce to the nth power (all historical events happen so many times until it is impossible for them to become more farcical). No, this was a tragedy allright, but of the people, not Allende himself (though I have som admiration for the man, going to the palace knowing he was doomed).

    One reason I dislike sloganeering is that it smacks of idealism. What about an in-depth study of the materialist and political conditions of Chile at the time? Bet they are pretty resistant to bizarre piece you linked to. It’s an idealist piece that seems to assume that if you just take the right idea/approach, everything will fall into place! Such people will never even get to hold the kind of weak power that Allende wielded.

    Here’s another slogan: if revolutions are the locomotives of history, idealists should be used as their fuel, which is the only bloody use they have from a materialist point of view. :)

  6. Well, you do have the problem with revolutions/the leftists trying to change a lot that it often ended in a bloody mess. Take the GDR, Sovievt Union, the Jacobins for example. This seems to be a structural problem with the left: is there any chance that their claim to power doesn’t lead to more suffering in the name of abolishing exactly that? We’re talking about people here. This has to be acknowledged at least as a general problem. I get really sick with that chic radical speak, probably only possibly just because the left is so weak that no one even bothers with opposing the underlying ideas.

    This sounds like a voluntaristic argument, but I do think that we have to learn from the history of the left in order to be able to not repeat the shit that happened. Allende is an example of the other way. Of not starting a civil war, of not arming the people in order to create a supposedly better life (to whatever degree). This had dire consequences, too. And this needs to be remembered in it’s own right. It is too easy to just argue in a vulgar historical materialistc way that Allende was an agent of the bourgeoisie. As far as I know, socialism is the practical critique of the capitalistic society. It is powered and only able to be thought of as something that is, at least as an idea, immanent to the capitalistic society. This is arguing immanently, what is done above is to take a conceptual idea of socialism and take it as an absolute measure to political developments in the real world. That this is linked to a problematic claim to power, based on absolute knowledge (“the party is always right”, as the song has it), is clear.

    Also it’s plainly wrong to paint the “worker” as the revolutionary subject, which is essentially good. That’s been proven wrong at least since 1933. The National Socialists in Germany were quite popular with the working classes. They were armed, too, in the Volkssturm in the last days of the regime of the NSDAP. It didn’t lead to a socialist Germany.

    There is no necessary connection between Allende and Pinochets murdering. What if the people were armed? What if Pinochet wasn’t a general? The first presumes that there were less suffering. But that would have meant a civil war. I frankly know only of the USA and to a lesser degree France where that had any kind of positive consequences. The latter misunderstands history as history of Great Men.

    That isn’t a argument for martyrology, though.

    • Some good points. My own argument would be that some violence is necessary but that it can be limited. Just do what you have to do to take over the commanding heights of the economy and the state (power being usually concentrated in the hands of only 10s-100s of people), put in place your own system and the minions will have to follow (Erst komt das Fressen, dan die Moral).

      Allende, once in power, should not have pushed for civil war but instead have embarked on his own counter-coup: the killing or exile of all those working to overthrow his government, including foreigners. This can be done quite covertly, as the real coup shows. Why not just push Pinochet (or better, the guys behind him) under the bus?

  7. “(T)he killing or exile of all those working to overthrow his government, including foreigners”, you said. That’s exactly what the Jacobins, the Stasi or Stalin did. This is one core problem of any meaningful revolution; that’d to just repeat the mistakes of history. That Allende didn’t do that is what makes him important in any meaningful discussion of communism today.

    I guess the problem I have with your argument is it’s wrong critique of capitalism. You talk of the “commanding heights of the economy”. Who are they? It’s to easy to reduce capitalism to just “the commanding heights”. Capitalism is a totality, i.e. pretty much everyone is entangled with it. It’s a world wide structure of society. Even in the GDR, just as an example, there has been an insurance, a model form of capitalistic socialisation, because of the pressure they received from the capitalistic world (the need to trade with them). To speak of people as “minions” isn’t progressive at all, it’s forgetting the core analysis of capitalism, that it’s a kind of a religion, which let’s people forget their power. “Minions” is disempowering exactly those. “Power” isn’t something that can be concentrated as if it was substantial, it’s people doing what other people say, it is based on those people.

    > Why not just push Pinochet (or better, the guys behind him) under the bus?

    Because then, the US would have found another way to overthrow Allende’s government. Is Pinochet in any way important?

    • The mistake made by the Jacobins and Stalin was to start killing at a large scale, with a kind of disgusting randomness about it. I don’t see why you include the Stasi with them, they were rather smart compared with the others.

      The commanding height of the economy are the financial institutions that control capital and the state and transnational institutions that back them up. Without taking them over and running roughshod over those who resist it’s impossible to do anything really. I’m not reducing capitalism to them, just pointing out what the main obstacle is.

      You seem to take a somewhat idealist view of what capitalism is, though it is a religion allright: except a materialist one quite amenable to accumulation! Remember the famous quote from Columbus:

      “Gold is the most precious of all commodities, gold constitutes treasure, and he who possesses it has all he needs in this world, and also the means of rescuing souls from purgatory and returning them to the enjoyment of paradise.”

      Yes, shades of Blankfein here, doing god’s work.

      Now what’s this view of power of yours but an ideal when people are enchained in the material conditions determined from the actions playing out at the commanding heights far beyond their reach. People don’t forget their power, they know exactly what they are up against and can reason as intuitive materialists. Of course by minions I refer to 2nd level officers and bourgeois executives.

      Yes, Pinochet is important, though I gather he was far from the mastermind behind it so wouldn’t have been a priority. There’s only so many people who would be able to carry out a coup, only so many high-level backers. Violence has a discriminate use, then. Also, one could have taken it to the CIA itself through other means (probably not smart to hit them directly, though, unless through very deniable intermediaries). Or why not have some ‘crazy’ push Kissinger from the Great Wall, that would have been a laugh (yes, yes, I’m so sorry, it’s a human being allright and all that).

  8. Pingback: Lenin on the bourgeois revolutions | The Charnel-House

  9. Very belatedly responding to this.

    Maybe I’m stupid, but here’s what I don’t understand. As much as I agree that Allende’s conciliationism what doomed from inception, how exactly was he going to arm the entirety of the Chilean working class? Which people, exactly, were going to give the Chilean workers guns? And how were such guns going to prove a match for tanks and fighter planes?

    Better for the SP to have never governed at all, methinks, until (1) it could take power entirely on its own, without the CP (much less the “left” bourgeois parties), (2) it had a strong majority of the workers and the rank and file of the armed forces on its side, (3) it had assisted in the creation of a Latin American Socialist International (independent of the official SI (social democrats) and official Communists) which could have lent assistance to a fledgling Chilean workers’ state.

    As early as 1895 Engels noted how conditions in Europe had “become far more unfavourable for civilian fighters and far more favourable for the military.” Conditions for insurrection today are even worse, frustrating the old vision of splitting the armed forces and/or arming workers. The average worker does not know how to use Abrams tanks, armored personnel carriers, or fighter-jets or bombers. The achievement of socialism now requires a truly critical mass; as Engels said, “Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organisation, the masses themselves must also be in on it.” Again, the transition to socialism requires the winning over of the majority of rank-and-file soldiers — not merely splitting them — in order to ensure that they will disobey orders given by right-wing putschists against the socialist supra-majority. Hence, yes, socialists must take seriously recruitment and education within the armed forces as our movement re-grows. (We therefore ought to be committed to universal public service and — as Engels was — to universal military service.)

    Basic point: given modern weaponry, there is no civil war road to socialism. At best it would mean “the common ruin of the contending classes.”

    • I think this is Bernsteinianism at its worst. Bernstein & co. specifically requested that Engels write a more “parliamentarian” preface to the reissue of Marx’s The Class Struggle in France, so as to lend greater authority to their evolutionary (non-revolutionary) theory of socialism advanced a couple years later. Rosa Luxemburg and others were right to excoriate him for it.

      Not that it’s good to fetishize street violence, either. That would be empty militant posturing. However, an armed populace and, as you suggest, compulsory military service and conscription, would be highly advantageous both to the fomenting and the defense of socialist revolution.

  10. How on Earth is this Bernsteinian? Bernsteinism means saying that cross-class coalition politics is just fine, like the SPD governing with bourgeois parties in the Weimar Republic. I oppose that. That should’ve been quite clear. And you didn’t answer any of the questions that I raised at all. Or do you really think that armed insurrection against a bourgeois state with tanks and fighter planes is, or will ever be, feasible?

    • I have in mind Bernstein’s reformist position during the revisionist controversy of the late 1890s, not the governing strategies or cross-class coalitions of the postwar Weimar period. The position Bernstein raised was to deny any agency to socialism other than through gradual legislative reform, thus “evolutionary” rather than “revolutionary” socialism.

      Bernstein also was famous for opposing the idea of violent revolutions, seizure of state power through means other than periodic electoral plebiscites. Usually that means some sort of use of force. Engels’ essay “On Authority” is good when it comes to this. Historically revolutions tend to occur when there is a sudden confluence of “spontaneous” social forces alongside well-established and well-organized political groups. Often it involves mass defections with the army or seizure of munitions or strategic locations.

      • Except my strategy is explicitly NOT solely based on “gradual parliamentary reform.” I said that the Chilean SP shouldn’t have entered the government in 1970! Not very Bernsteinian, is that?

        And if you have the majority of ordinary soldiers on your side already (which Unidad Popular did NOT), and they refuse orders from their superiors to shoot socialist workers, well, that’s certainly an implicit use of force, isn’t it? It just isn’t civil war properly defined.

        And Bernstein wasn’t for rewriting every bourgeois constitution in the world, from top to bottom, changing the state structure and with it, its class content. I am. So much for my Bernsteinism.

    • Fair enough on that point. Though even in a revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat, a seizure of power in the classical sense, the smashed state apparatus would still be reminiscent of the old bourgeois state (only without the bourgeoisie). Which is why the state must still be abolished.

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