Sunday, September 15, 2013

Salvador Allende: Revolutionary Democrat

This review was first published in Irish Left Review.

Salvador Allende’s last speech may well have contradicted the perfunctory process of an expected historical epilogue. The mere fragments of time prior to the initial horror unleashed by the military coup on September 11, 1973 may have annihilated the actual era of the Unidad Popular; however it ensured Allende remained an integral part of Chile’s collective memory. Of greater fortitude than nostalgia, Allende’s revolutionary process has managed to retain its relevance beyond the conformity of time.

‘Salvador Allende: Revolutionary Democrat’ (Pluto Press, 2013) goes beyond the expected portrait of Allende as president of Chile, delving into an understanding of his life as a committed activist whose ideology was garnered both from Marxism as well as a profound insight into social inequalities. Despite a relatively privileged background, Allende’s upbringing in Tacna and later in various areas of Chile enabled profound perspectives through an observation of colonial processes, workers’ resistance, popular movements and the contradictions assailing Chilean society. Dispelling the critique of Allende as utopian, Victor Figueroa Clark demonstrates that, far from the multitude of generalisations associated with Allende, Chile’s political process with Allende at the helm was of tangible importance for the left on a global level, as well as for current Latin American governments who have embraced a perpetual struggle against imperial exploitation.

Allende’s life may be perceived as a series of experiences culminating into a profound concern for society and freedom, to the point where the definition of freedom becomes at times a source of controversy. Despite US intervention in Latin America proving detrimental to socialist progress, Allende’s respect for freedom of opinion went beyond the norm. Parallel to his insistence upon flexibility within socialist ideology in order to attain ‘unity of thought’, future dissent was also tolerated, departing from the trend of maintaining revolution through force and opting for revolution ‘as a profound and creative transformation’.

Foreign exploitation was instrumental in shaping Allende’s consciousness and ability to form perceptions beyond the confines of his immediate surroundings. His military experience evoked a primary contradiction – while expressing a certain affinity to the entity, unlike other socialist leaders such as Fidel Castro, Allende was also perceptive to the injustices carried out by the military, resulting in his decision to embark on another career which heightened his sense of perception of inequalities. Allende’s role in the medical profession propelled him into direct contact with the ramifications of inadequate access to healthcare, later declaring “I won my bread sticking my hands into pus, cancers and death”. Allende’s perception of healthcare and poverty was not isolated from the political concept – his revolutionary transformation of society through socialism addressed the limitations and deprivations experienced by Chileans.

The insistence of finding ‘a Chilean solution to Chilean problems’ – a view also shared by the Chilean Communist Party, was heightened by Allende’s years of activism since university. His aim to transform Chilean society through embracing socialism was not solely dictated by an adherence to classical texts, as evidenced by his years of activism and later political career. Departing from an earlier relevant affirmation regarding the role of man in society following his return from internal exile in Caldera: “Man is only part of the social whole; therefore his life should be at its service, that is, at the service of his fellow men”, Allende maintained the obligation of fulfilling his duties towards society, embarking upon criticism of policies of detriment to Chileans in terms of welfare, health and education. Prior to his electoral victory, Allende was pushing for national control over Chile’s natural resources – denouncing imperialism not only through a projected national interest at governmental level, but also through a genuine interest in the workers’ plight, thus allowing the workers to distance themselves from the role of spectators.

The book portrays Allende’s electoral campaigns in a similar vein – authenticating the process of resistance between the leader and the masses. His victory at the helm of the Unidad Popular represented decades of indefatigable effort to build the necessary groundwork to build a socialist revolution in Chile through non-violent mobilisation. Allende’s electoral programme, including land reform, the transformation of the judiciary, nationalisation of industries and social reform battled an entrenched structure which had served imperial interests for decades, leading to a fragmentation of unity within the left with the main factions urging a continuation and strengthening of the socialist revolution through armed resistance countered by a sustained challenge to institutions through popular control. The destabilisation of the country by the CIA-aided Chilean right wing played out the contradiction between freedom of speech and destruction, later dissent was deconstructed into patriotism by the leaders of the military coup, in an attempt to justify the collapse of the Unidad Popular and the death of Salvador Allende under circumstances still disputed, despite testimony alleging suicide.

Allende’s revolutionary legacy stands in contrast to that of other Chilean leaders such as Eduardo Frei and Patricio Aylwin, who endorsed the coup and granted it legitimacy. The neoliberal experiment unleashed upon Chile –marked by torture, execution, disappearances and exile in an attempt to annihilate all traces of Marxism and deter future revolutions in Latin America failed to surpass the power of collective memory, despite the various frameworks outlining the fragmentation of Chilean society.

However, as the book argues, Allende’s legacy and steadfastness to his principles of non-violence lent credibility and concrete proof of his last uttered convictions to the people prior to the bombing of La Moneda. The immediate dissonance of certain decisions can now be interpreted, and correctly so, as a testimony of steadfastness and unwavering triumph which does not descend into the politics of compromise, as evidenced by Allende’s speech at the United Nations, denouncing intervention in Chile and acknowledging the ramifications of facing unbridled turbulence in the name of sovereignty without adequate support – occurrences which echo Fidel Castro’s certainty that Allende would lead the next revolution in Latin America, effectively exposing imperial fears of socialist domination in the region following the triumph of the Cuban Revolution.

The electoral power of the Unidad Popular as viewed decades later enables the reader to differentiate between the power of the masses and the reality reflected in Congress, with both camps struggling for unity while assaulted by different forms of subversion orchestrated through CIA involvement. Allende’s vision for Chile’s socialist and democratic progress might have withstood a chance, had Congress adopted Allende’s earlier philosophical declaration regarding the significance of unity of thought, which would have bestowed the necessary dynamics between political representation and the people. Allende advocated against violence and humiliation, acknowledging the frail boundary between both scenarios which can also be interpreted as a metaphor for Chilean resistance in the aftermath of the coup. It is the alternative, embodied by Allende and portrayed so effectively in this compelling biography, which transcends symbolism both through a historical interpretation of events, as well as the sustained struggle for freedom against all forms of imperial exploitation.

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