Profile: Salvador Allende

Lionised by the Left, the Chilean president refused to moderate his Marxist aims in the face of economic chaos


This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Fifty years ago, on 11 September 1973, General Augusto Pinochet overthrew Chile’s elected government. He went on to lead the country for 17 brutal years, during which inequality soared, the economy boomed, and leftist opponents of the regime were quietly suppressed, imprisoned and killed in their thousands. On that fateful September day, Salvador Allende, Chile’s socialist president, killed himself with a rifle given to him by Fidel Castro. Allende the man, his nation in chaos, died by his own hand. But Allende the icon, the myth, the martyred hero, was born.

As with Christian saints, the kingdom of the paragons of the far Left is not of this world and is distinguished by public defeat more often than worldly triumph. But where the paths diverge is that Marxists claim the paradise they are dying for can be realised on earth, and in our own lifetimes.

Another difference is that communist martyrs are quite happy to shed blood on their way to their cross. Che Guevara marched across dozens of revolutionary battlefields before meeting his end in Bolivia, where he died raving about the immortality of the revolution. He was no stranger to executions, having sentenced ​​at least 179 people to death for political “crimes” whilst presiding over the prison of La Cabaña, in one of the darkest chapters of the bloody Cuban revolution.

If Guevara, gun smoking, is a warrior saint, Salvador Allende serves a very different purpose in the roll call of Marxist martyrs. He is immortalised as an innocent: Allende played by all the bourgeois democratic rules, respected everyone’s rights, but was still brutally murdered by a CIA-backed coup.

Moderate socialists learn to identify capitalism with autocracy, with the handy figure of Pinochet as neoliberal tyrant. Radical interpreters of the Allende martyrdom deduce that no peaceful means to socialism exist. They can thereby carve their bloody path to utopia with a clean conscience. But in both interpretations, Allende’s Chile hovers as a beautiful might-have-been, a realm for the romantic imagination, a socialist Al-Andalus where Marxism and democracy could coexist.

Allende must have seen something he liked in Pinochet. Decades later he made him his enforcer

So much for Allende the legend. But Allende the man emerges as a very different character. His biographer Mario Amorós (an unapologetic fan) describes him as an “elegant freemason” who “enjoyed good food, liked women, dressed elegantly”. A medical doctor, it has been alleged that Allende’s dissertation contains support for eugenics, biological determinism and a generous sprinkling of anti-Semitism: he appears to have believed that hot climates produce populations who act immorally, that criminality was largely hereditary, and that “Hebrews are well-known committers of certain types of crimes including: fraud, deceit, defamation, but most notably usury”. Such views would have been unsurprising in a man of his background in 1960s Chile, and the accusations have been challenged and contextualised by supporters. But they do give some sense of the real Allende — a doubtlessly intelligent, disciplined and charming man, but one who in no way resembled a communistic Christ.

Allende was a technocrat, a patriot and a revolutionary, a man thoroughly representative of his bourgeois ruling class, both in his sincere social conscience, and his ironclad confidence in socialism and himself. The child of the Chilean revolutionary elite, his ancestors were doctors, lawyers, officers and politicians, leaders in the Radical Party and senior Freemasons. His three unsuccessful bids for the presidency give some sense of the deep-seated pride and determination of a man who felt he was born to rule.

Whilst the teenage Allende was a natural athlete, Pinochet was in his own words “a weak lad”, taught by Catholic nuns before joining the army. The son of a customs officer, his ancestors were cheese-makers, not decision-makers. Nevertheless, his parents had ambitions for him, especially his mother, to whom he was very close.

Pinochet was a man on the rise, frustrated by the limits of military life; patriotic like Allende, but introspective and cautious, an instinctive conservative largely untouched by ideology. The suave doctor and the stolid officer met for the first time in 1948, when Pinochet was overseeing a prison camp for Communist Party members. Allende wanted to visit them. Pinochet jokingly threatened to shoot him if he tried.

This meeting is a vital puzzle piece in a story many on the Western Left casually assume they already know, but don’t. Allende must have seen something he liked that day, because decades later he appointed Pinochet — largely regarded as an apolitical dogsbody — as a chief military enforcer for his radical economic agenda.

Following massive and peaceful protests against Allende, the President had Pinochet impose curfews and prohibit protests by force. As the country slipped further into chaos and senior military officers resigned, Pinochet was in August 1973 appointed commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The legislature, which by this point was in open opposition to Allende’s rule, passed a resolution calling for the armed forces and police to put an end to his “unconstitutional” acts.

Chilean Carabineros surround the Presidential Palace.

Allende responded by accusing the elected chamber of representing the “exploiting classes”. Two weeks later, Pinochet seized power, and nobody was more surprised than Allende, who refused to believe that the apparently deferential officer could turn on him.

Allende’s faith in the armed forces may seem bafflingly naive to outside observers, but it makes more sense in the context of Chilean history. Chile gave the world the concept of the ruido de sables, the literal sabre-rattling of discontented and underpaid young army officers in a 1924 protest that led to the overthrow of its increasingly corrupt and ineffective government.

That coup was against Chile’s conservative establishment and, a year later, left-leaning military officers seized power and replaced the weak parliamentary government with a strong executive presidential constitution. From this followed a turbulent period, including a brief communist coup attempt by socialist army officers and a dictatorship under Carlos Ibáñez del Campo, who later took power democratically with the help of the Popular Socialist Party (a faction of Allende’s own party). He legalised the Communist Party (Allende’s coalition partners).

Allende’s grandfather founded the Chilean army’s medical corps and though by the 1970s the army was identified increasingly with the anti-communist Right, it was far from the automatically right-wing institution many assume. Indeed, Allende’s great fear was not of the military, but Chile’s gendarmerie, the Carabineros.

In relying on the army to maintain order, and seeking to bypass the legislature and rule by executive fiat, he was acting as generations of Chilean radicals had done before him, from the anti-clerical revolutionaries of Chile’s founding, to the 20th century militaristic republicans and socialists who went to war with the dominant conservative class of landowners.

There is no shortage of evidence suggesting that Allende saw the military as legitimate participants in the political process. He quoted General René Schneider’s concept of them as “an integral and representative part of the nation as well as of the State structure, that is, they belong both to the permanent and the temporary spheres, and are therefore able to organise and counterbalance the periodic changes which affect political life within a legal regime”.

General Pinochet (centre) salutes while walking to join the Te Deum on September 18, a week after the military coup

Whilst Schneider refused to block Allende’s election and claimed the army was apolitical, he stood clearly in a Chilean tradition that saw the army as a legitimate force in extremis, writing “in the case that the State stopped acting within their own legality … the armed forces have a higher loyalty to the people and are free to decide an abnormal situation beyond the framework of the law”. What distinguished Allende from other Chilean leaders (including Pinochet) was not his methods, but his extreme ideological commitment to Marxism.

Allende’s “Chilean Way to Socialism” was no manifesto for social democracy, but simply a peaceful transition to what other Marxists had achieved with violence. From the outset, he described his government as “revolutionary” and promised to nationalise all industry, collectivise land ownership, and resist the “imperialism” of America.

He openly admired Cuba and the Soviet Union and welcomed Fidel Castro to Chile for a state visit. The closeness of the two men’s relationship is most evident in the Grupo de Amigos Personales, Allende’s Cuban-trained and equipped bodyguard, many of whom were Communist guerrillas.

In his victory speech at the start of his time in office, Allende offered dark hints about the need for “our popular action committees” to be “vigilant, so that we may be ready to respond to any call, if it were necessary, made by the leadership of Unidad Popular”.

In his first speech to Chile’s parliament, six months into his rule, his opposition to elected representatives and the priority of the executive was uncompromisingly set out. He accused parliament of serving the powerful and grandly informed it of its duty to authorise “profound changes” in the socioeconomic order. Meanwhile he claimed absolute democratic legitimacy, despite winning just 37 per cent of the popular vote.

He said the Chilean revolution was “similar” to Russia’s in 1917, and identified the “dictatorship of the proletariat” as “one of the methods of building a socialist society”. He rhapsodised about violent revolution, saying “nobody doubts that by this method nations with a large population can, in a relatively short period, break out of their backwardness and attain the most advanced level of contemporary civilisation”.

Allende’s famous commitment to democracy was tactical; he was quite happy to unleash the army on his political opponents

Allende’s deference to Chile’s constitution was minimal: “Our legal norms and the regulating machinery of Chilean social relationships correspond at the present time to the needs of the capitalist system.” The “present Constitution, with its liberal foundations’ will be replaced “by a Constitution of a socialist nature”. Allende promised non-violence, but bluntly menaced those who “threaten the straight road to emancipation”. Should “violence of any form” including “economic” violence, occur, then the “fight for social emancipation and for the free determination of our people would necessarily take a different form”.

And in Allende’s Chile, it frequently did. Despite his claims of reactionary forces dominating Chilean politics, a moderate social democratic version of what he proposed was already under way, initiated by his Christian Democratic predecessors with American encouragement and support.

The nationalisation of Chile’s copper industry was already well in hand. Land reform was not invented by Allende, either, and was being carried out with the support of both the US government and the Catholic Church (which was already distributing its lands to peasants voluntarily).

What Allende brought to the mix was a breakneck pace that terrified international markets, reckless money-printing that caused massive inflation and violent communist militias roaming the countryside, illegally expropriating farms and assassinating Christian Democratic rivals. His famous commitment to democracy was tactical; he was quite happy to unleash the army on his political opponents.

When the curtains began to close on Chile’s experiment with socialism, Allende reached out to his friend Castro for advice. Cuba’s leader suggested he continue to give an appearance of moderation, and keep the army onside, at least until he could organise his own militias. Allende’s inability to follow this advice demonstrated why his pursuit of democratic socialism was a reflection of the lack of support in Chile for a violent communist revolution.

From the outset Allende was at war with Chile’s liberal constitution and every institution, from the media to the courts and legislature, not under his control. He was a dogmatic communist who refused to moderate his aims even in the face of economic catastrophe and diplomatic isolation.

Venezuela, which has been governed on Marxist lines for the past 20 years, offers some idea of what Allende’s Chile might have looked like. Compared to the Chile bequeathed by his nemesis Pinochet, Venezuela’s male life expectancy is 10 years shorter, its inflation is 250 times higher, average incomes are $2,000 less and 6 million people have left the country.

Shelves are empty, shortages are endemic, senior ministers pocket the wealth from nationalised industries, political opponents are jailed. And all this in a nation which sits on top of the largest proved oil reserves in the world. The brutal and bloody climax in September 1973 snuffed out Allende’s life and, with it, the Chilean way to socialism. No final act could better have secured his reputation.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover