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Fifty years after the overthrow of Salvador Allende, Chile faces a fundamental choice between Left and Right


Protesters march carrying red flags and a portrait of Salvador Allende.
Protesters commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the coup against Salvador Allende during a march in Santiago, Chile, 10 September 2023. Photo: IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

The global Left’s interest in the fiftieth anniversary of the coup in Chile that overthrew the Popular Unity government and the broad popularity of its leader, Salvador Allende, contrasts with the reactionary atmosphere pervading Chile, preventing this anniversary from being a moment to reaffirm a commitment to democracy and the defence of human rights by society as a whole. A cross-party condemnation of the coup by all political groupings seems an impossible aspiration.

Pierina Ferretti is a doctoral candidate in Latin American Studies at the University of Chile and currently a researcher for the Fundación Nodo XXI.

There is no denying that this landmark comes at a tremendously difficult time for the Chilean Left. Despite the enormous hopes raised by the widespread protests of 2019, Gabriel Boric’s victory in the 2021 presidential elections, and the constituent process that sought to tear up Pinochet’s constitution, the defeat of the constitutional plebiscite in 2022 caused an about-face in Chilean politics in which the extreme Right has become the most popular political force like never before.

In less than five years, Chile has gone from the largest social protests in its recent past, a movement that raised the possibility of putting an end to the 1980 Constitution — one of the most burdensome legacies of the Pinochet years — to watching as a democratic, progressive constitutional project drawn up by an assembly with a majority of left-wing figures and social movements was overwhelmingly rejected. The party of far-right leader José Antonio Kast, who has ties to the German far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), has since become the country’s primary political force.

Chile’s Morbid Symptoms

In this context, the commemoration of the coup has become, more so than in previous decades, a disputed space in which the Right seeks to install its own perspective on history, using a battery of arguments that includes justifying the coup and blaming the Left for the breakdown of democracy and the long years of dictatorship. In recent weeks, right-wing figures have been seen all over Chilean media, denying the existence of political and sexual violence under the dictatorship, openly defending Pinochet, and spreading lies about the Popular Unity coalition and President Allende. The Left, reeling from recent defeats, has failed to focus public debate on human rights and the defence of democracy.

In more general terms, the country remains trapped in an unresolved political and social crisis. It is clear now that the prevalent model has run its course, but the Left has failed to construct an alternative with broad support from society, particular the working classes. While Gabriel Boric’s government remains stalled in its reform programme to consolidate social rights as a result of the Right obstructing parliament, levels of social unrest and discontent with official politics are increasing, while the far right feeds off the discontent of broad working-class sectors, agitating with an aggressive, conservative discourse.

The Popular Unity coalition was the culmination of the Chilean subordinate classes’ long journey to consolidate a social project different from that of the dominant groups, the pinnacle of the accumulation of the people’s strengths and energies.

The situation is similar to the one described precisely and masterfully by Antonio Gramsci at the emergence of fascism: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Those symptoms are becoming increasingly visible, while the dangers looming over neighbouring countries can be seen as dramatic warnings of what happens when reactionary conservatives come into power.

The Chilean Road to Socialism

Chile’s democratically elected government was not the only thing overthrown on the morning of 11 September 1973. That day 50 years ago marked the end of a nearly century-long process of political and social construction by the Chilean working class. At the same time, it saw the death of a political experiment that was as daring as it was original: the construction of a socialist society within a framework of “democracy, pluralism, and freedom”, as Allende stressed in his speeches.

From a historical perspective, the Popular Unity coalition was the culmination of the Chilean subordinate classes’ long journey to consolidate a social project different from that of the dominant groups, the pinnacle of the accumulation of the people’s strengths and energies. That long march stretches back to the mid-nineteenth century, to the first artisans’ organizations, and spans the first two thirds of the twentieth century — a rich history of struggles, strikes, defeats, state repression, resistance, half-victories, internal divisions, and attempts at convergence among left-wing groups.

The Popular Unity project combined elements of third-world leftist ideology: ending underdevelopment and poverty meant overcoming dependent capitalism, attaining greater sovereignty over strategic areas of the economy, nationalizing natural resources, and creating the economic foundations to increase political and social freedoms. President Allende said it clearly on the occasion of the nationalization of Chile’s copper industry: the country’s most important mineral was to be nationalized so that Chile could finally “break its economic dependence, to fulfil the hope and longing of those who gave us political freedom, to gain our second independence, the economic independence of our homeland”.

The Popular Unity coalition was part of the Latin American Left’s struggle for a socialist, anti-oligarchic and anti-imperialist revolution. But the idea of a transition to socialism via institutional means clashed with the prevailing revolutionary imaginary, which was strongly influenced by the Cuban experience and tended to conceive of revolution as the result of an insurrectional process. The project launched in Chile astonished the world with its originality, alarmed the US with its potential for duplication across the continent, and challenged the Left to consider the prospect of different ways of progressing in the construction of socialism.

Salvador Allende was a fervent champion of “the Chilean road” and repeatedly defended this democratic and freedom-loving orientation. “What will be our road, our Chilean path of action to triumph over underdevelopment?”, he asked in his inaugural presidential speech on 5 November 1970. “Our road will be one built through our experience, one consecrated by the people in the elections, one set out in the Popular Unity programme: the road to socialism within a framework of democracy, pluralism, and freedom.”

Socialism as a libertarian and democratic project is probably the most treasured legacy that the Popular Unity coalition has left us.

What was original about it, what made Chile into a revolutionary experiment on a global scale, was the attempt to build socialism on a path hitherto untraveled: via political struggle at the very core of the institutions of bourgeois democracy. Allende was fully aware of the unique nature of this path. In his first speech to both houses of parliament (the Congreso Pleno) on 21 May 1971, he declared: “Today Chile is the first nation on earth to put into practice the second model of transition to a socialist society.”

Admittedly, the value of democracy within the Popular Unity coalition was not shared unanimously — however, there is no doubting Salvador Allende’s conviction on this matter. He was a representative of the socialist tradition, whose origins were strongly influenced by anarchism, and he defended libertarian and democratic ideals as constituent parts of his conception of the revolutionary process. Only socialism could fulfil modernity’s promises of equality and freedom.

He reflected on this in his second speech to the Congreso Pleno in May 1972:

The revolutionary road that we have charted and that we have been calmly following has made freedoms more real and more authentic, in giving the vast majority of our compatriots more material means to exercise them. It has strengthened the democratic model by implementing measures that will stop inequalities at the root. No one who objectively observes our reality can doubt that the development of the model of democracy and of freedom is necessarily tied to the evolution of the revolutionary process.

Allende valued the advances of liberal democracy — free elections, industrial and collective liberties — but he believed that socialism was advancing on a deeper level. In a speech to the Colombian Congress, referring to the development of his government’s programmme, he said:

We have guaranteed the freedom of assembly, the freedom of association, the freedom of the press, the freedom of thought, and unlimited respect for all faiths. On this basis, we are marching decisively to turn abstract freedom into a concrete freedom that can be felt and lived, that the people understand and defend. In democracy, pluralism, and freedom, we walk decisively towards building a new society in Chile, the socialist society.

This clearly shows how Allende understood socialism as the space in which freedom could become a reality for the working classes and cease to be a class privilege. However, perhaps the most relevant aspect of Allende’s concept of democracy was that of the increasing participation of the workers in the direction of social life. In his inauguration speech, he said: “Our government’s programme, endorsed by the people, is quite clear that our democracy will be so much more real if it belongs to the workers, will strengthen human freedoms all the more if it is directed by the people themselves.” Democracy as the power of the people, as the power of the working-class majority to determine the fate of collective life.

Socialism as a libertarian and democratic project is probably the most treasured legacy that the Popular Unity coalition has left us. The coup that sought to destroy this alternative 50 years ago built a society dominated by the opposite principles, a society in which the working-class majority was stripped of power.

Neoliberalism Was Born (and Dies?) in Chile

When did 11 September 1973 end? Did it end on 5 October 1988, when Pinochet lost the plebiscite that brought an end to his rule? Or did it end on 11 March 1990, when Patricio Aylwin of the Christian Democratic Party, who had been one of Allende’s primary adversaries and supported the military intervention, was sworn in as president? Can we say for certain that the dictatorship ever ended?

If we consider how the neoliberal economic transformation, initiated by the military regime and later extended under democracy, has advanced to extreme levels in the commodification of social life via the privatization of longstanding social rights (education, health, pensions, housing), and how the population has been forced to fend for itself in the market with little or no state protection, we find a measure of the dictatorship’s prolongation into democracy.

However, neoliberalism’s legitimacy is on shaky ground. In recent decades, we have seen unrest expressed in protests and citizens’ mass demonstrations. Struggles against the privatization of water by agricultural companies, communities fighting against mega-mining in the so-called “zones of sacrifice”, the plight of precarious workers in both the public and private sectors, the multitudinous demonstrations for the right to education and a new pension system, the emergence of a mass anti-neoliberal feminist movement, and the sustained resistance of the Mapuche people against state colonialism (a constant throughout the post-Pinochet period) are just some of the aspects that show that unrest has not only accumulated in Chilean society, but that social stakeholders have formed that are capable of questioning the status quo.

Fifty years after barbarism triumphed over an attempt at democratic socialist transformation, the threat of barbarism looms on the horizon once again.

The most recent cycle of social struggle began with the new wave of feminism, continued with the protests of 2019, and culminated in the Constitutional Convention and the rejection of the anti-neoliberal draft proposal. It is fair to say that the feminist movement that emerged around 2016 was the starting point of this period of intense social mobilization. The demonstrations against male violence and for the right to abortion, the mass strikes on International Workers’ Day, and the protest performances as part of the social protests of 2019 are milestones of this emerging mass movement that cuts across segments of society with a capacity for decentralized but effective coordination.

Feminism is now a force of social mobilization domestically and internationally that exceeds the capacity of any traditional organization, such as trade unions or political parties. In Chile, it can be said that feminism laid the groundwork for the protests of 2019, spreading a rebellious disposition, a will for protest and irreverence that contributed to rousing broader social sectors and found expression in the 2019 protests, the greatest deployment of working-class forces in recent decades.

That October, Chile’s image as a neoliberal haven was destroyed. Public transport fare hikes triggered a spontaneous popular rebellion led by a heterogeneous group of actors, from working-class sectors most hit by exclusion and inequality to middle-income sectors with an increasingly precarious standard of living. This spontaneous movement, free of political organizations or leaders, paved the way for a historic prospect: an end to Pinochet’s Constitution.

In a plebiscite in October 2020, 80 percent of Chileans voted in favour of constitutional change. Months later, a convention was elected in which, for the first time in history, the Left and social movements enjoyed a broad majority. After a year of work, a proposal was drawn up for a new constitution with substantial progress in terms of social rights, the construction of a social state, sexual and reproductive rights, and recognition of indigenous peoples. It seemed that the slogan “Neoliberalism is born and dies in Chile”, which appeared in street protests and was painted thousands of times on walls throughout the country, was close to becoming reality.

Yet, on 4 September 2022, an overwhelming majority of Chileans rejected the proposal for a new constitution drawn up by the Left. For many, the Left had not suffered such a blow since the defeat of 11 September 1973. With the rejection of the proposed anti-neoliberal constitution, the dream of ending the most stubborn of Pinochet’s legacies was frustrated. It does not appear that neoliberalism is nearing its death in Chile anytime soon.

A Democratic Road to Barbarism?

Fifty years after barbarism triumphed over an attempt at democratic socialist transformation, the threat of barbarism looms on the horizon once again. Today, as we witness the crisis of the savage capitalism imposed by the dictatorship — its death throes, its incapacity to foster social legitimacy, the levels of unrest and frustration that it provokes and the violence it unleashes — we also see how an authoritarian response gathers strength while the current Left fails to articulate a social project that makes sense to the masses.

A “democratic road to barbarism” may be the curse of this history should the Left fail to articulate a future project that a majority of society sees as their own. In this effort, the Popular Unity coalition is a source of inspiration, of a relevance that never perishes. The field is open and, as always when crises worsen, as Rosa Luxemburg warned over 100 years ago, there are two possible outcomes: socialism or barbarism.