Marc Cooper: My Own September 11th (overthrow of Allende in Chile in 1973)
Source Dave Anderson
Date 10/09/16/20:38
My Own September 11th

Sorry to interrupt the great, national narrative but the date
September 11th has multiple and complex meanings for me. I share the
pain we all felt in 2001. But, for me, the greater pain was inflicted
on that same date in 1973 when a similarly violent act of terror and
brutality touched off a series of events that took an equal 3,000
lives. It also submitted tens of thousands of others to torture;
submerged an entire nation of 11 million into darkness and deeply
traumatized the national psyche — the Chilean nation psyche (Yes,
Virginia, there are people on earth other than Americans).

I was 22 years old and was working for the president of Chile,
Salvador Allende, at the time. Plenty has been written about his
brutish successor, General Pinochet. Very little has been written
about Allende.On this September 11th, instead of reflecting on such
human flotsam as Pastor Jones, Newt Gingrich and George W. Bush, I
prefer to revisit what I wrote about Allende in 1973 on the 30th
anniversary of my own September 11th:

The Nation
By Marc Cooper

IT'S ENOUGH TO review once more that last, final black-and-white
photograph of Salvador Allende to glimpse the apparent contradictions
of his life and legacy on this, the thirtieth anniversary of his
death, and that of his Popular Unity government.

Chilean Army tanks and troops were circling the presidential palace,
twin Air Force jets ready to bomb it were already in the air and
General Pinochet was about to seize power. Accompanied by his young
bodyguard, there on the palace doorstep stood the 65-year-old
gentleman Allende, the medical doctor, veteran parliamentarian and
democratically elected president in impeccably pressed pants and a
silk tweed jacket over a hand-knit sweater–with the strange, surreal
accents of a steel military helmet on his head and fully loaded AK-47
in his arms. Of these last moments in the life of Allende, Gabriel
García Márquez wrote: “His greatest virtue was following through, but
fate could only grant him that rare and tragic greatness of dying in
armed defense of the whole moth-eaten paraphernalia of an execrable
system which he proposed abolishing without a shot.”

García Márquez captures a crucial truth, but one that is partial.
Allende is widely remembered only as a victim–of the Chilean
counterrevolution, of the vast US covert destabilization program and
ultimately of what some argue was his own peaceful strategy. But his
positive contributions to history, his bold attempts to redefine the
very concepts of revolution, socialism and democracy, and the unique
place that he deserves in the annals of the international left remain
substantially unrecognized–or misunderstood. Even for a younger
generation of radicals, Allende is often but a distant memory, a
footnote, just one more entry, alongside Arbenz and Mossadegh, on a
laundry list of elected leaders violated by imperial arrogance.

Though most often characterized as the “first freely elected Marxist
head of state,” who proposed a “peaceful transition to socialism,”
Allende intended something more sweeping. His insistence on the use of
democratic means to achieve power and radically reconstruct society
was neither a mere tactic nor just a euphemism for minor and moderate

There was no precedent for what Allende was attempting–except maybe in
the writings of Marx. Socialism, real socialism, as argued by the Old
Lion, would bring with it an expansion and deepening of democracy, not
its curtailment or abolition.

Allende believed profoundly in this principle. He explicitly rejected
the model of European Socialists, who–even by 1970–aspired to be
little more than the liberal face of capitalist management. And though
he considered himself a friend and ally of Fidel Castro (especially in
the face of US hostility), Allende rejected any suggestion that Cuba
or any of the other Communist countries of the time could be a model
for his vision of socialism.

Allende saw a third way–in no way to be confused with Tony Blair’s
self-declared middle path between corporate free markets and social
democracy, but rather an authentically socialist and democratic
alternative to meek social reform, on the one hand, and authoritarian
“people’s democracies”–Stalinist dictatorships–on the other.

So while Allende insisted on absolute respect for the law and
constitutional processes, on no restrictions on freedom of the press,
speech and assembly, he simultaneously carried out the nationalization
of Chile’s copper mines and 200 major corporations, a sweeping land
reform that expropriated monopoly holdings, and a host of other
measures that benefited and empowered the poor.

>From the outset, Allende’s position in its full complexity was rarely
understood by much of the left. When France’s leading revolutionary of
the time, Régis Debray, came to Santiago to depose Allende in now
legendary and lengthy interviews, the young Frenchman was manifestly
confused. In Debray’s rigid thinking, either one was a bona fide armed
revolutionary à la Che Guevara or a hopeless reformer following in the
footsteps of the ineffectual European popular fronts of the 1930s.
Allende had to repeat to Debray several times that the new Chilean
government, coming to power democratically, would both respect and
enhance democracy while not shying away from radical, socialist

A few years after the coup, another high-profile European leftist
finally got it right regarding Allende. The Italian Marxist
philosopher Lucio Colletti (who died in 2001 after a disappointing
political journey to the right) argued back in the mid-1970s that the
left had bogged down in a false and perilous assumption: i.e., the
more violent a revolution, the more transformative it must be.
Consequently, peaceful transitions–like Allende’s Popular Unity
government–were doomed to dead-end reformism. Colletti argued that
this facile thinking was itself a legacy of Stalinism and, indeed, had
no real roots in socialist experience.

In the three decades since the coup, the criticism most frequently
raised on the left about Allende was that he failed to “arm the
workers” and that he was too tolerant of an opposition that eventually
overthrew him.

The first point is beyond absurdity. Guns don’t materialize either
from the sky or from presidential decree. Chile’s relatively advanced
and stable democratic institutions made the option of armed revolt
about as viable and attractive as it might seem in modern California.
If the argument is that Allende, in the weeks before the coup, should
have preventively armed his supporters, the follow-up question should
be, how? Just as realistic–that is, unrealistic–is the suggestion that
he should have disarmed the military.

The Allende government made many strategic mistakes–enough that a coup
would probably have been inevitable even if the United States had
never engaged in its covert program of subversion (though the American
intervention certainly accelerated and paved the way for the putsch).
At times the Popular Unity government I worked with was driven too
much by a heady voluntarism, a hubris that kept it from making key
alliances and compromises. At other moments, the government was
paralyzed by its own internal divisions and disagreements. But among
these mistakes was certainly not Allende’s tolerance for the
opposition or his commitment, to the end, to democracy. I don’t know
if historic circumstances would have ever permitted Allende’s vision
to triumph. I do know that if he had suspended democracy and ruled by
dictatorship, it would no longer have been his vision, nor would it
any longer have been a “revolution” much worth defending.

If one surveys the panorama of today’s international left, Allende’s
legacy occasionally flashes and flourishes. The arduous two-decade
march into power of Brazil’s Workers’ Party, and the unique balancing
act of socialist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, draw directly
from the lessons of Chile. The anti-authoritarian, egalitarian spirit
of new social movements– whether in Buenos Aires or Seattle–reflects
the ethos of Allende, as do the recent moves by Argentine President
Néstor Kirchner to lift immunity from prosecution of officers of the
former military junta. Indeed, anywhere the left is willing to be
open, innovative, nondogmatic and imaginative, both realistic and
utopian, where it can reject Tony Blair’s New Labour alliance with
Dubya’s neocons as firmly and unflinchingly as it denounces the
wholesale jailing of dissidents and summary executions by an ossified
and dictatorial Cuban state, the figure of Salvador Allende and his
self-sacrifice for the principles of social justice and democracy loom
ever larger, more inspiring and more worthy of reverence and respect.

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