Chile’s path to socialism failed for lack of defense

For many left-wing political activists of my generation, the 1973 military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet, against Salvador Allende‘s Socialist Unity government in Chile was a seminal event, which was to influence our political outlook for the rest of our lives. This was especially true of those who were on the revolutionary left.

Salvador Allende victory in the 1970 Chilean presidential election made him the first Marxist to be elected head of State by democratic means. After news of his victory was broadcast around the world and it began to sink in he’d been elected President of Chile, leftists spontaneously rejoiced; from London to Leningrad, Brasília to Bombay, Santiago to Stockholm, we were all overjoyed, with many claiming his election proved there was a ‘democratic road to socialism’ opening up across the globe. True in hindsight many allowed their hearts to rule their heads, but I will not condemn them harshly, as only a psychopath would prefer a bloody revolution, if the same outcome can be achieved by the Ballot Box.

However what Allende overlooked was the historical fact of the need to keep the armalite in reserve. As James Connolly warned members of the Citizens Army prior to the 1916 Dublin Easter Rising: “The odds against us are a thousand to one. But if we should win, hold onto your rifles because the Volunteers may have a different goal. Remember, we are not only for political liberty, but for economic liberty as well.”

Sadly there were no shortage of psychopaths in the US State Department or in the CIA, the foremost amongst them was Henry Kissinger and Richard Helms, who both understood the dangers for free market capitalism were the masses to witness, and then emulate Salvador Allende election victory.

After he was elected, Allende and his comrades began to implement a platform they named the Chilean Path to Socialism. This included nationalisation of large scale industries, including US multinational corporations, who had been skimming the Chilean peoples natural resources for decades, notably in copper mining and banking. The creation of a new national health care system, free at point of need, a massive expansion of State education which included free milk for children in the schools and shanty towns of Chile, and a programme of land seizure and redistribution, and an emergency plan for the construction of 120,000 new homes was put into action.

On coming to power, Allende’s Unidad Popular Coalition (“Popular Unity”) immediately restored diplomatic relations with Cuba, and replicated a policy of Fidel’s and sent 55,000 young volunteers into the countryside to teach reading and writing skills, and provide medical attention where none previously existed. The Chilean path to socialism was a programme that all international socialists could be proud.

Its one major flaw was the absence of defensive mechanisms to defend what amounted to a democratic socialist revolution. After Allende’s election, CIA director Richard Helms was given orders by President Nixon and Henry Kissinger to do whatever was necessary in order “to get rid of him,” him being Allende. He activated his agents of influence within the Chilean military, business community, and media.

The CIA helped organise the kidnapping of General René Schneider, Commander in Chief of the Chilean Army, who was shot resisting a kidnap attempt, and died of his wounds three days later. Its thought he was murdered because of his support for the constitution, at the time millions of Chileans were immensely proud of their nations democratic credentials.

Instead of cleaning the stables, especially the military, police and intelligence agencies; and trusting the workers with arms, Allende appointed his nemesis Augusto Pinochet, Chief of Staff of the Army in 1972 and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed forces on 23 August 1973. Having sworn allegiance to his president and the constitution, less than a month later, this US quisling joined a coup d’état, which overthrew Allende’s elected socialist government on 11th of September 1973. Due to Allende’s refusal to arm the very same workers who had supported him in their millions, the military coup was more like a turkey shoot.

I wrote at the top of this piece that the Chilean military coup was a seminal event for my generation, the one lesson I learnt was if we ever manage to elect a socialist government, if it is to remain in power, the ballot box and the armalite must be more than leftist agitprop.

Mick Hall