Salvador Allende: Revolutionary democrat

Salvador Allende: Revolutionary Democrat
by Victor Figueroa Clark
London: Pluto Press, 2013
paperback 164 pp.
ISBN: 9780745333076

Review by Laurence Goodchild

August 5, 2014 – Links international Journal of Socialist Renewal -- In this succinct and well-researched book, Victor Figueroa Clark achieves numerous accomplishments. While detailing a vivid account of Salvador Allende’s life, Clark also provides a much needed historical context to Allende’s leadership of the Popular Unity government, and addresses his political strategy in a manner that is highly relevant to the contemporary “pink tide” in Latin America[i].

As suggested by the subheading “Revolutionary democrat”, Allende is characterised as a Marxist revolutionary who envisioned a thoroughly democratic and participatory socialism. Ultimately, this is the core point emphasised throughout the book; Allende’s pursuit of an electoral road to socialism did not negate from his goal of overthrowing capitalism. This is a bold statement that gives the book a true sense of purpose and is especially pertinent with regards to 21st century “movements towards socialism” in Latin America.

The socialisation of a leader

Clark does an excellent job of simultaneously illustrating and intertwining developments in the political economy of Chile and developments in Allende’s life; something which is essential if we are to avoid discussing his later presidency in an ahistorical fashion.

Allende is introduced as someone from a distinguished bourgeois family who bore witness to Chile’s massive social inequalities as his family moved around the country during his youth. Within the context of national political turbulence, as well as revolutions in Mexico and Russia, Allende’s liberal-progressive leanings are deemed to take a radical turn when he comes face-to-face with extreme poverty and the violent repression of working-class organisations. As a medical student, the ill health created by the ravages of a laissez-faire capitalist system clearly disturbed him, and he began to develop a socialist outlook working in student organisations linked to the illegal Communist Party.

Beyond these material conditions, ideological factors highlighted by Clark in the development of Allende’s socialism such as the teachings of an anarchist cobbler make for an intriguing read, and give insights to the broad range of heterodox influences he experienced. Although Allende came to identify with the working classes, Clark depicts a man caught between two worlds. While becoming thoroughly committed to socialist ideals, Allende clearly remained attached to bourgeois sentiments – exemplified within amusing anecdotes such as his insistence on not refusing a challenge to duel.

Political strategy and Allende’s socialism

As is asserted throughout the book, Allende did not adopt an external model of socialism straight off the shelf. Instead he was determined to develop a socialism that adapted to and learnt from its particular context, including past failures such as the short-lived socialist republic of 1932.

This undogmatic and particularly Chilean strain of socialism, which displayed a variety of influences, often led to a rather uneasy and fragile relationship between Allende and various sectors of the left, including his own party. The Cuban revolution of 1959 had a profound influence upon the Latin American left, and as guerrilla organisations sprung up across the continent there was a yearning within much of the Chilean left to move away from electoral and social struggle in favour of armed revolution.

Clark skilfully and convincingly delineates how Allende truly was inspired by the Cuban revolution, and yet was not naively drawn to the conclusion that armed struggle was suitable to Chile. Instead, as Che Guevera inscribed on a copy of Guerilla Warfare he presented to Allende, he sought the “same ends by different means”.

Given the tragic fate of Allende’s electoral path it would be easy to claim that those who spoke of armed struggle were right, but this would be to ignore the tragic path that such movements took “into obliteration” (p.79)[ii]. Clark argues that Allende’s friendship with armed revolutionaries in countries where “dictatorships impede the right of men to participate even in bourgeois democracy”, and his perusal of socialism via electoral means in a Chile where limited civic competition was still possible, were part of a coherent vision (p. 82).

Rise and fall of the Popular Unity government

Clark describes the Popular Unity (UP) as a culmination of a 30-year effort by Allende and his allies to create a broad alliance and “put Chile on the road to socialism” (p. 86). Allende only gained 36.6% of the votes in the 1970 presidential elections, a fact which is often raised against the UP government. In this regard, Clark insists that we must look deeper by highlighting the Christian Democrats’ espousal of a program of “communitarian socialism”, similar in numerous ways to UP policies. As such, it is claimed that Allende took power “as the president of the 65 per cent of Chileans that had voted for broadly similar programmes of change” (p. 91).

While this assertion may seem quite fragile, the fact that the UP gained over 50 per cent of the vote in the later municipal elections sits on much firmer ground in terms of aiding the claim that the UP was legitimately popular.

Despite contradictions internal to the UP and Chilean left as a whole, foreign interference, and economic sabotage by domestic capitalists, Clark contends that the UP government made significant progress. A transformative program was pursued that included the nationalisation of key industries, extensive land reform, an anti-imperialist foreign policy and the expansion of a redistributive welfare system. Rather than minor tinkerings, Clark asserts that these were the beginnings of a long-term socialist transition, highlighting the participatory nature of the welfare programs as an example of their qualitative difference.

Overall, Clark presents the UP as government which was thoroughly engaged with, and supported by, popular classes. Furthermore, it is deemed to have been successfully taking steps towards the establishment of Chilean socialism in the face of extreme imperialist and capitalist opposition.

Against positions that define Allende as a weak social democrat, Clark persuasively shows Allende as a socialist leader struggling ahead within conditions not of his own making. Indeed it was the success of his project which provoked the counter-revolutionary actions against his government, culminating in the coup on September 11, 1973.

The book includes a riveting play by play account of Allende’s actions during the coup, and touches upon various reasons as to why the UP government was unable to resist it, such as the failure to create organs of popular power. Ultimately though, Clark does not identify a single definitive reason for the downfall of the UP in terms of its political strategy. This is perfectly reasonable given the scope of the book as a biography, the complexities of the situation and the importance of structural constraints. In comparison to accounts that emphasise inadequacies of the government, Clark rightfully emphasises the overwhelming odds that were stacked against it and refuses to give oversimplified correctives[iii].

Lessons and legacy

Allende was concerned with building a socialism in Chile that was particular to its historical, national and international context. Although the lessons we can draw from Allende’s life are necessarily limited by contextual difference, Clark justifies contemporary comparisons by highlighting the striking similarities between Allende’s political strategy and governments building “21st century socialism” today. Imperialist aggression, bosses’ lock-outs, coup attempts and capital flight all plight contemporary leftist governments, just as they did Allende’s Chile. Furthermore, and most importantly in terms of drawing parallels, they have come to power through the ballot box.

The key difference is that while Allende found himself isolated on a continent of military juntas, today those governments pursuing a path of independence are unified within groupings such as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA). Moreover, those under attack can now expect support from not just their closest ideological allies, but also from the wider Latin American community, which has taken on a definitively more independent character in recent years. Such integration efforts and unity among Latin American peoples are vitally important in defending progressive achievements and greater sovereignty.


Salvador Allende: Revolutionary Democrat provides an accessible account of Allende’s life, which is simultaneously thorough and concise. Clark’s key contribution, that Allende’s revolutionary and democratic principles are consistent rather than contradictory, is particularly relevant at a time when contemporary socialist movements are re-envisioning what democracy means to them[iv]. Although those looking for an exhaustive analysis of the UP government and its downfall will need to read further, this biography of such an emblematic figure provides a solid starting point.

[Laurence Goodchild is a member of the Green Left and Unite the Union (UK).]


[i] The “pink tide” is a term used to refer to those broadly left-wing governments which have won general elections across much of Latin America from the late 1990s onwards.

[ii] The vast majority of these guerrilla groups were brutally crushed in a short period of time, while others, such as the Colombian FARC, have been locked into decades of civil war. The only exception is the Sandinistas of Nicaragua, who held governmental power from 1979 to 1990.

[iii] For example the idea that a popular militia could have defended the UP government. Clark re-iterates his position on this in an interview published by the New Left Project.

[iv] Democracy is being re-envisioned in more direct or participatory forms by socialist movements in Latin America, leaving behind authoritarian models of leadership or delegitimised representative democracy. Participatory budgeting in Porte Alegre, Brazil, or the community councils of Bolivarian Venezuela are examples of this in practice.


On 11 Sept many will be reminded of the heroic end of Salvador Allende, gun in hand. This personifies the myth of him as a marxist revolutionary leader. This he was not. In fact he constantly undermined the working class in the class war of 1971-3 during his presidency. If you want to know more read Mike Gonzalez' piece "Chile1972-73:"The workers united" in the book "Revolutionary Rehearsals" Haymarket Books 2002.
Gonzalez' judges Allende's final speech on radio asserting that "history would condemn the generals" was an unforgiveable renunciation of his own responsibility and a lie told to posterity. Allende's Popular Unity coalition government left the working class disarmed and helpless to face the military coup that wreaked savage vengence against its class enemies.
We don't need "false gods", we need to know what actually happened so that in future class battles/wars we understand better what needs to be done to win it next time around.