Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Ralph Miliband, “The Coup in Chile” (October 1973)

“What happened in Chile on 11 September 1973 did not suddenly reveal anything new about the ways in which men of power and privilege seek to protect their social order: the history of the last 150 years is spattered with such episodes. Even so, Chile has at least forced upon many people on the Left some uncomfortable reflections and questions about the ‘strategy’ which is appropriate in Western-type regimes for what is loosely called the ‘transition to socialism.’

Of course, the Wise Men of the Left, and others too, have hastened to proclaim that Chile is not France, or Italy, or Britain. This is quite true. No country is like any other: circumstances are always different, not only between one country and another, but between one period and another in the same country. Such wisdom makes it possible and plausible to argue that the experience of a country or period cannot provide conclusive ‘lessons.’ This is also true; and as a matter of general principle, one should be suspicious of people who have instant ‘lessons’ for every occasion. The chances are that they had them well before the occasion arose, and that they are merely trying to fit the experience to their prior views. So let us indeed be cautious about taking or giving ‘lessons.’
All the same, and however cautiously, there are things to be learnt from experience, or unlearnt, which comes to the same thing. Everybody said, quite rightly, that Chile, alone in Latin America, was a constitutional, parliamentary, liberal, pluralist society, a country which had politics: not exactly like the French, or the American, or the British, but well within the ‘democratic,’ or, as Marxists would call it, the ‘bourgeois-democratic’ fold. This being the case, and however cautious one wishes to be, what happened in Chile does pose certain questions, requires certain answers, may even provide certain reminders and warnings. It may for instance suggest that stadiums which can be used for purposes other than sport – such as herding left-wing political prisoners – exist not only in Santiago, but in Rome and Paris or for that matter London; or that there must be something wrong with a situation in which Marxism Today, the monthly ‘Theoretical and Discussion Journal of the (British) Communist Party’ has as its major article for its September 1973 issue a speech delivered in July by the General Secretary of the Chilean Communist Party, Luis Corvalan (now in jail awaiting trial, and possible execution), which is entitled We Say No to Civil War! But Stand Ready to Crush Sedition. In the light of what happened, this worthy slogan seems rather pathetic and suggests that there is something badly amiss here, that one must take stock, and try to see things more clearly. In so far as Chile was a bourgeois democracy, what happened there is about bourgeois democracy, and about what may also happen in other bourgeois democracies. After all, The Times, on the morrow of the coup, was writing (and the words ought to be carefully memorized by people on the Left): ‘... whether or not the armed forces were right to do what they have done, the circumstances were such that a reasonable military man could in good faith have thought it his constitutional duty to intervene.’ Should a similar episode occur in Britain, it is a fair bet that, whoever else is inside Wembley Stadium, it won’t be the Editor of The Times: he will be busy writing editorials regretting this and that, but agreeing, however reluctantly, that, taking all circumstances into account, and notwithstanding the agonizing character of the choice, there was no alternative but for reasonable military men ... and so on and so forth.
When Salvador Allende was elected to the presidency of Chile in September 1970, the regime that was then inaugurated was said to constitute a test case for the peaceful or parliamentary transition to socialism. As it turned out over the following three years, this was something of an exaggeration. It achieved a great deal by way of economic and social reform, under incredibly difficult conditions – but it remained a deliberately ‘moderate’ regime: indeed, it does not seem far-fetched to say that the cause of its death, or at least one main cause of it, was its stubborn ‘moderation.’ But no, we are now told by such experts as Professor Hugh Thomas, from the Graduate School of Contemporary European Studies at Reading University: the trouble was that Allende was much too influenced by such people as Marx and Lenin, ‘rather than Mill, or Tawney, or Aneurin Bevan, or any other European democratic socialist.’ This being the case, Professor Thomas cheerfully goes on, ‘the Chilean coup d’état cannot by any means be regarded as a defeat for democratic socialism but for Marxist socialism.’ All’s well then, at least for democratic socialism. Mind you, ‘no doubt Dr. Allende had his heart in the right place’ (we must be fair about this), but then ‘there are many reasons for thinking that his prescription was the wrong one for Chile’s maladies, and of course the result of trying to apply it may have led an “iron surgeon” to get to the bedside. The right prescription, of course, was Keynesian socialism, not Marxist.’ That’s it: the trouble with Allende is that he was not Harold Wilson, surrounded by advisers steeped in ‘Keynesian socialism’ as Professor Thomas obviously is.
We must not linger over the Thomases and their ready understanding of why Allende’s policies brought an ‘iron surgeon’ to the bedside of an ailing Chile. But even though the Chilean experience may not have been a test case for the ‘peaceful transition to socialism,’ it still offers a very suggestive example of what may happen when a government does give the impression, in a bourgeois democracy, that it genuinely intends to bring about really serious changes in the social order and to move in socialist directions, in however constitutional and gradual a manner; and whatever else may be said about Allende and his colleagues, and about their strategies and policies, there is no question that this is what they wanted to do. They were not, and their enemies knew them not to be, mere bourgeois politicians mouthing ‘socialist’ slogans. They were not ‘Keynesian socialists.’ They were serious and dedicated people, as many have shown by dying for what they believed in. It is this which makes the conservative response to them a matter of great interest and importance, and which makes it necessary for us to try to decode the message, the warning, the ‘lesson.’ For the experience may have crucial significance for other bourgeois democracies: indeed, there is surely no need to insist that some of it is bound to be directly relevant to any ‘model’ of radical social change in this kind of political system.
Perhaps the most important such message or warning or ‘lesson’ is also the most obvious, and therefore the most easily overlooked. It concerns the notion of class struggle. Assuming one may ignore the view that class struggle is the result of ‘extremist’ propaganda and agitation, there remains the fact that the Left is rather prone to a perspective according to which the class struggle is something waged by the workers and the subordinate classes against the dominant ones. It is of course that. But class struggle also means, and often means first of all, the struggle waged by the dominant class, and the state acting on its behalf, against the workers and the subordinate classes. By definition, struggle is not a one way process; but it is just as well to emphasize that it is actively waged by the dominant class or classes, and in many ways much more effectively waged by them than the struggle waged by the subordinate classes.
Secondly, but in the same context, there is a vast difference to be made – sufficiently vast as to require a difference of name – between on the one hand ‘ordinary’ class struggle, of the kind which goes on day in day out in capitalist societies, at economic, political, ideological, micro- and macro-, levels, and which is known to constitute no threat to the capitalist framework within which it occurs; and, on the other hand, class struggle which either does, or which is thought likely to, affect the social order in really fundamental ways. The first form of class struggle constitutes the stuff, or much of the stuff, of the politics of capitalist society. It is not unimportant, or a mere sham; but neither does it stretch the political system unduly. The latter form of struggle requires to be described not simply as class struggle, but as class war. Where men of power and privilege (and it is not necessarily those with most power and privilege who are the most uncompromising) do believe that they confront a real threat from below, that the world they know and like and want to preserve seems undermined or in the grip of evil and subversive forces, then an altogether different form of struggle comes into operation, whose acuity, dimensions and universality warrants the label ‘class war.’
Chile had known class struggle within a bourgeois democratic framework for many decades: that was its tradition. With the coming to the Presidency of Allende, the conservative forces progressively turned class struggle into class war – and here too, it is worth stressing that it was the conservative forces which turned the one into the other.” [….]
Ralph Miliband’s entire essay (including the notes, which I’ve left out), is found at the Marxists’ Internet Archive, was originally published in The Socialist Register, 1973: 451-474.

Salvador Allende’s “Last Words to the Nation.”


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