The arrest of the Chilean ex-dictator Pinochet in London in October reopened the debate about the overthrow by the armed forces of the Allende government in 1973. At the time Leninists and anarchists trumpeted this as confirmation of their argument that it is not possible to use existing limited, political democracy to abolish capitalism. So it is worth restating why what happened in Chile in 1973 is not relevant to our case that capitalism can be abolished by a democratically-organised socialist majority using already-established elective and representative institutions.
The Chilean experience is not relevant for three basic reasons. First, Allende and the People’s Unity (Unidad Popular) alliance which supported him did not enjoy majority support. Second, Allende and People’s Unity did not stand for socialism but for state capitalism. Third, it was an attempt to improve things within the context of a single country on its own.
In the presidential elections held in September 1970 Allende polled 36 percent of the votes cast, just beating his conservative opponent who got 35 percent while the Christian Democrat candidate got 28 percent. In other words, in a three-way contest Allende won by not much more than the minimum possible-one-third of the votes plus one. Under the constitution then in force in Chile, if no candidate won over 50 percent it was left to Congress to decide. Allende was elected president with the help of the Christian Democrat members of Congress, perfectly constitutionally but without majority support for his programme. So he was in a much weaker position vis-à-vis his opponents than a socialist majority would be.
But the support Allende enjoyed was not for socialism anyway. People’s Unity which he headed was an alliance of the Chilean Socialist Party, the Chilean Communist Party and various smaller leftwing groups. Its short-term aim was to carry out various reforms in favour of workers and peasants within the context of capitalism. Its long-term aim, strongly influenced by the Communist Party and people who thought like them within the Socialist Party (of course the one was no more communist in the proper sense than the other was socialist), was something along the lines of what existed in Russia, i.e. state capitalism. Maybe Russian-style total state capitalism can’t be established by peaceful means, but what relevance has this to establishing socialism?
Finally, socialism cannot be established in just one country. The Allende government could not have established socialism even if it wanted to and had, therefore, no alternative but to run capitalism. However capitalism, as we have always insisted, cannot by its nature be run in the interests of the working class majority. So, like other reformists, Allende was unable to deliver on his promises. Even though elections held in March 1973 showed that the support of a third or so of the population for People’s Unity still held up, discontent grew amongst the two-thirds majority which didn’t support it, the discontent exploited by the government’s opponents, encouraged and helped by the CIA (in pursuit of the US strategic interest not to allow Russian state capitalism to establish another bridgehead besides Cuba in their backyard) and multinationals like ITT (who feared nationalisation without adequate compensation).
By September 1973 the conservative (not to say fascist) minded leaders of the armed forces, led by General Pinochet, decided the time was ripe to stage a coup. The presidential palace was bombarded and Allende killed and a brutal regime the like of which the world had not seen since Franco won the Spanish Civil War was installed. A veritable reign of terror, designed to cow the third of the population who still supported Allende, was unleashed. Thousands of opponents were rounded up, tortured and killed; elective institutions were dissolved and working class organisations banned.
No wonder most people were content to see Pinochet arrested and suffer a few uncomfortable moments, if not end his days in a Spanish jail (Thatcher, who saw a kindred spirit, being a notable exception). But this does not alter the fact that the government Pinochet overthrew had nothing to do with socialism but was a government without majority backing aiming to move towards state capitalism in the context of a world in which two super-powers were struggling for domination. The quite different conditions that will obtain on the eve of socialism-mass support for socialism throughout the world-will be sufficient to deter any suicidal attempt by a latter-day Pinochet to halt the progress of history.