Chile’s socialist leader Salvador Allende became an icon of resistance to oligarchic tyranny after the right-wing coup that began 50 years ago today. His ideas and his sacrifice remain a powerful example for anyone seeking to build a movement for change.

Salvador Allende waves to well-wishers from the front garden of his home on October 24, 1970, after learning that the Chilean Congress had officially ratified him to become president. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

This September marks fifty years since the violent overthrow of the socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile. Allende’s Popular Unity (UP) government sparked widespread interest across the world.

For socialists in Western Europe or North America, Allende’s election showed that revolutionaries could come to power through democratic means, that socialism did not have to mean an end to political pluralism. For those in the socialist and nonaligned world, it was further evidence of a revolutionary tide gathering global strength.

At the same time, Allende’s victory marked the failure of a sustained US-led effort to prevent revolution in Chile. It provoked deep concern and hostility among Latin American elites, as well as in Washington and other Western capitals, where it was feared that the Chilean example might spread to Europe.

A Constant Presence

As the leader of the Popular Unity alliance, and as a long-standing politician known to revolutionaries and conservatives alike, Salvador Allende was both the face and the beating heart of the Chilean revolution. After his overthrow, the profound symbolism of his choice to die in combat rather than flee into exile ensured that he became a rallying point for a global solidarity movement that marked a generation across the world.

Salvador Allende was both the face and the beating heart of the Chilean revolution.

In Latin America, Allende joined a pantheon of heroes who had struggled against oligarchy as well as Spanish and later US imperialism. Allende’s followers helped carry the torch of revolution to Nicaragua, El Salvador, and far beyond. Meanwhile, in Chile itself, during the dictatorship, Allende became an icon representing the Chilean revolution — for example, in the moments prior to the attempt to kill Pinochet on September 7, 1986, the guerrillas listened to Allende’s last speech before they moved out to their positions.

Today there are streets, squares, sports centers, ports, and parks named after him across the world, including in cities like Havana, Moscow, Caracas, Rio de Janeiro, and Mexico City, but also Sheffield, The Hague, Copenhagen, Paris, Berlin, Rome, and many more. Although official recognition of Allende in his own country is scant — a testament to the potency of his political legacy — Chileans voted him the greatest Chilean of the twentieth century in 2008.

In 2019 and 2020, his face was a constant presence in murals and on placards during the mass protests of the “estallido.” In his December 2021 victory speech, Chile’s current president Gabriel Boric paraphrased Allende in an effort to demonstrate his government’s continuity with Allende’s project. Clearly, as the Latin American slogan goes, Allende remains “present” among us fifty years after his death.

Behind the Myth

However, over time Allende has become a myth and a symbol, obscuring many of the relevant details of his life and activism. Allende became a student leader in the turbulent period leading to the Mussolini-inspired dictatorship of Colonel Carlos Ibañez, and he rose to prominence in the struggle against it.

Over time Salvador Allende has become a myth and a symbol, obscuring many of the relevant details of his life and activism.

He worked in a psychiatric hospital and a morgue, earning his bread by sticking his hands “in pus, cancer, and death,” as he later stated. In a society with an average life expectancy of less than forty years, he wrote a book on the sorry state of Chilean health care.

Allende suffered prison and internal exile, qualified as a doctor, and was a founding member of the Chilean Socialist Party. As part of the Socialist militia, he fought in street battles against fascists during the 1930s. He then became a local leader in Valparaiso, before being elected as parliamentary deputy for the city and serving as health minister under the Popular Front president Pedro Aguirre Cerda.

From his earliest political days, Allende was a friend of the Chilean Communist Party, which he thought was a key part of the Chilean working class. Allende also befriended many Latin American exiles in Santiago, such as the future president of Venezuela, Rómulo Betancourt, and their ideas and experiences flowed into his political vision.

Allende was charismatic, energetic, and extremely self-disciplined, and he worked hard at the craft of mass politics. Allende brought a love of statistics and context into politics, regularly setting up expert circles to help him develop policy that he then translated into popular, easy-to-understand terms. He remained a parliamentary politician until 1970.

Allende traveled widely and had a particular interest in socialist countries, visiting the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, North Korea, and Yugoslavia, as well as Cuba. As a political leader, he did not just reflect popular aspirations but fought actively to shape them. For example, nationalization of copper went from being a fringe concern to become a cross-party demand before being unanimously approved by Chile’s Congress.

Allende was elected to the Senate, and eventually became its president in the late 1960s. When criticized, he often pushed back, defending the right to armed struggle against tyranny and highlighting the hypocrisy of his adversaries. Allende led left-wing coalitions in the presidential campaigns of 1952, 1958 (which he narrowly lost), and 1964. He joked that his epitaph would read “here lies the future president of Chile,” before finally being elected president in 1970, as the leader of UP.

Popular Unity and Its Opponents

In three years, Allende’s government transformed Chile with a massive land reform, the nationalization of key industries and raw materials, and the mass construction of housing. The government expanded education and health care in a way that gave priority to the needs of women and children as the “basic unit” of society.

Allende’s government transformed Chile with a massive land reform, the nationalization of key industries and raw materials, and the mass construction of housing.

UP introduced equal pay and recognized illegitimate children, while also giving workers a new role in the operation and planning of the economy. The government also began providing representation and autonomy for indigenous peoples. In international affairs, Allende’s Chile pursued Latin American integration and engagement with socialist states as part of an independent foreign policy that emphasized ideological pragmatism and noninterference in the affairs of other states.

However, UP did not control Congress, and a political stalemate gradually developed. As storm clouds gathered, Allende sought ways out of the growing crisis — establishing dialogue with the opposition, traveling abroad to marshal support, and striving to achieve unanimity of action among the Chilean left.

Unfortunately, debates on the Left grew increasingly polarized, and the domestic opposition became increasingly intransigent and violent, with support from Washington and other foreign capitals. Outright terrorism, opposition marches and lockouts, and a nonstop hostile media campaign reached a crescendo.

The US stranglehold on the Chilean economy tightened, as the Nixon administration found ways to turn the screws. The dark forces of imperialism and fascism seized the initiative, and eventually they acted through the military to overthrow Allende, unleashing a wave of terror and bloodshed from which Chile has yet to fully recover.

Allende’s Vision

This is just a brief outline of a long political life. Unlike many political leaders, Allende left no memoirs or political texts. Moreover, he tended to think of theory as “a cold maze,” as he once told Régis Debray. Intellectuals were not his audience, and he was not an ideologue.

Unlike many political leaders, Allende left no memoirs or political texts.

He had neither the time nor the inclination to sit down and elaborate a body of theory. So if we want to understand Allende’s thinking, we need to piece it together from his speeches and his actions. Through this, we can discern a set of ideas and practices that define “Allendismo.”

Allende was a patriot of Chile and of Latin America. For Allende, as for the Chilean Socialist Party, Chile was part of a Latin American whole, and its future lay in the struggle for integration. In this Allende showed the influence of his Peruvian friend Luis Alberto Sánchez, who in turn was a friend and former comrade of Víctor Rául Haya de la Torre and José Carlos Mariátegui, Latin America’s greatest Marxist.

Allende felt an affinity for Latin American politicians like Colombia’s Jorge Eliécer Gaitán and Guatemala’s presidents Juan José Arévalo and Jacobo Árbenz — men who also led popular movements for change. He saw himself as part of this broader struggle. The purpose of Allende’s patriotism was to improve the lot of the Chilean and Latin American pueblo, particularly that of women and children, through social, political, economic, and cultural development, and by doing so to illuminate and glorify Chile.

In order to achieve this, he believed, Chile needed political and economic sovereignty. By working to achieve this, Chile would be able to support working-class movements elsewhere, and at the same time, help to liberate the oppressors in each country, including the imperialist core, from the chains forged by their own oppression of others.

Three Pillars

The counterpart of Allende’s patriotism was his lifelong, ardent anti-imperialism. For Allende, imperialism was centered in the United States, but it had a European subsidiary that acted in concert with it. This Western imperialism confronted the socialist world and suffocated the legitimate democratic and economic aspirations of the world’s poor.

Some of Allende’s friends, such as Venezuela’s Rómulo Betancourt, sought an accommodation with the United States. But even when imperialism used nonviolent methods, Allende decried the effect as being “always domination and arbitrary domination.” There could therefore be no definitive accommodation with imperialism.

On the other hand, while he had critiques of the Soviet Union, throughout his life Allende remained generally positive about its role in the world. His anti-imperialism was not of the “neither Washington nor Moscow” variety. It was this anti-imperialism and his recognition of a broad anti-capitalist movement at a global level that marks Allende’s essential difference from the social democratic tradition.

For Allende, true socialism meant sovereignty, and political and economic democracy. Political democracy meant pluralism, both within and beyond the popular movement.

Above all, Allende was a revolutionary democrat following in the footsteps of his ideological precursor, Luis Emilio Recabarren, the founder of the Chilean Socialist Workers’ Party. While he did not deny the legitimacy of popular violence against tyranny, he thought that in Chile, the popular struggle had created a movement strong enough — and institutions flexible enough — to enable an unarmed transition toward socialism.

For Allende, true socialism meant sovereignty, and political and economic democracy. Political democracy meant pluralism, both within and beyond the popular movement. The popular movement was composed of different historical currents, including socialists, communists, democrats, and radicals, all of which had a role to play in the struggle around a central socialist-communist alliance.

The challenge was to coordinate this movement and build an evolving platform of common demands that would together channel the popular thirst for change. Economic democracy meant the democratic allocation of resources to benefit the people as a whole. Together they precluded economic and political subordination to external forces, or to a domestic elite. These three pillars constitute the core of Allende’s political thought.

Friends and Enemies

In his political practice, Allende was an undogmatic pragmatist, a man of the people who spent much of his life among them. Although he enjoyed good food, drink, and clothes, and was often accused of being a “toff,” he did not shy away from the worn soles, fleas. and cheap perfumes of the poor.

In his political practice, Allende was an undogmatic pragmatist, a man of the people who spent much of his life among them.

He traveled Chile from north to south, sharing the food and sleeping in the huts of the poor while campaigning, and he dedicated his life to the cause of their emancipation. He probably knew Chile better than any other politician of his time.

In politics, Allende struggled to dislike people, tending to focus his ire on concepts. He understood that people’s actions often differed from their words, and his life shows a consistent effort to build unity among allies, and to educate and correct adversaries rather than destroy them. As a result, he often had good personal relations with conservatives and actors from across the political spectrum, as long as they treated him and the popular movement with respect.

His only true enemies were fascism and imperialism, and their allies in praxis within the Chilean elite. For example, his erstwhile friendship with the political leader of Chilean Christian democracy, Eduardo Frei, only deteriorated when Frei failed to reject the increasingly vile impact of US interference in Chilean politics during the 1960s. In a bitter twist, Frei was later murdered by the dictatorship he had helped into power.

Allende understood the importance of actively defending his persona as a leader of the Left, rising to any challenge that sought to attack his honesty or his political principles. At times, he could seem aggressive by today’s standards, but this approach enabled him to preserve his political status through several decades and in the face of a relentlessly hostile media.

Gaitán’s daughter once told Allende that his life was a road for others to follow. The continued interest in his life, and in the political project of Popular Unity, shows that his ideas, his methods, and his sacrifice remain an example for anyone seeking to build a movement for change.

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