The Marxist regime of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1970-73 presents an unusual case of a Communist revolution attempted in a democratic country by democratic means.
In the 1960s the government of Chile was controlled by Christian Democrats, whose leader, Eduardo Frei, pursued radical social and economic policies. In particular, Frei carried out an ambitious reform programme that called for the expropriation, with compensation, of large estates. Frei also nationalised much of the mining industry. These measures had the effect of polarizing Chilean society between the right, which thought they went too far, and the left, which saw them as inadequate. The popularity of the Frei administration was further undermined by inflation, which on the eve of the 1970 presidential election rose to 35 percent.
In that election, the three leading candidates ran neck and neck. The largest number of votes (36.3 percent) was cast for Salvador Allende, a medical doctor of Marxist sympathies, who represented the Popular United Party, a bloc of socialists and Communists. The conservative runner-up received 34.9 percent of the vote. Because no candidate had an absolute majority, the issue was referred to the Congress. During the two months that followed the election, Allende struck a deal with the Christian Democrats, who agreed to support his candidacy provided he subscribed to a set of conditions committing him to honour Chile’s constitution. These included respect for law and political pluralism. Spelled out in the Statute of Constitutional Guarantees, passed by Congress, it enabled Allende to assume the presidency.
[Pipes has forgotten something here. Allende was appointed President after a run-off election in the Chamber of Deputies, subject to a promise that he was to respect the constitution, obey the law and respect the Chilean Supreme Court. So there was also an agreement with the Chamber of Deputies, the same democratic body that later voted to depose him. -C.P.]
Allende’s ‘Chilean Road to Socialism’ was thus from the beginning subject to restraints that impeded the radical designs of its socialist and Communist constituency. Despite his admiration for Fidel Castro, Allende was a romantic idealist rather than a fanatical revolutionary. But his doctrinaire backers, determined to introduce into Chile a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ on the Soviet model, kept pushing him to the left, and as his measures failed, he became radicalised. Allende believed that he could achieve socialist objectives by legal means on the assumption that his reforms would in time gain him the support of the nation’s majority. The Communists supported this strategy, convinced that in Chile their objectives could be attained peacefully. Unfortunately for them, this did not happen, in part because Allende’s socialist legislation alienated much of the country, and in part because it reduced the country’s economy to shambles.
After assuming the presidency, Allended entrusted the economic ministries in his ‘United Popular Government’ to Communists, who proceeded to nationalise the remaining mining industries, banking, and much of manufacturing. Enacted by decree, these measures bypassed the legislature. The confiscation of the Anaconda and Kenncott copper mines caused foreign investments to dry up. The Soviet Union came to Allende’s assistance, extending to him over half a billion dollars in loans. Other countries also offered aid, but it was not enough to rescue Chile’s battered finances. To pay for the various social measures, including hikes in wages, the government resorted to the printing presses, which produced an inflation that far surpassed anything seen under Frei: in the three years of Allende’s presidency, the value of the currency in circulation increased by a factor of fifteen, and inflation exceeded 300 percent a year.
Concurrently with the nationalisation of enterprises, the government proceeded to collectivize agriculture. To this end, it tolerated and even encouraged land seizures. The result was a dramatic drop in food production, with wheat crops declining by almost 50 percent. Acute shortages followed: when Allende’s government fell, the country had flour reserves for only a few days.
Protests mounted. The most serious of these were organised by truckers – small private entrepreneurs – who objected to government plans to compete with them by means of a national transport company. On two occasions, these strikes, which involved as many as 700,000 people, brought the country’s transport and much of the economy to a standstill. In an Orthodox Communist country, such demonstrations would been declared counterrevolutionary plots instigated by the CIA and suppressed. But in Allende’s Chile, although the government controlled the radio and much of the press, there remained considerable freedom of information, which could not be silenced without provoking a national revolt. Opposition parties functioned and criticised the government. And, above all, there was the Congress and the Supreme Court.
In August 1973, the Chamber of Deputies voted 81 to 45 that Allende had violated the constitution by usurping its legislative powers, ignoring the country’s laws, and infringing on the freedom of speech. The supreme court, for its part, condemned Allende for subordinating the judiciary to his political needs. In view of the absence in the Chilean constitution of provisions for impeachment, the chamber requested the armed forces to restore the laws of the land. Obeying this mandate, eighteen days later, Chile’s military, led by general Augusto Pinochet, forcibly removed Allende from office. The new regime was a dictatorship that dealt quite brutally with the defeated socialists and communists.
Richard Pipes, Communism: A Short History, pp. 136-39