What Bernie Sanders and His Supporters Can Learn from Salvador Allende

As Bernie Sanders’s campaign gets underway, questions of how socialists should relate to voters and the state have become more pressing. Few historical figures provide more insight on this front than democratic socialist Salvador Allende’s government in Chile.

Since 2016, the idea of socialism as a viable and desirable goal has been on the agenda in American politics for the first time in a century. Until very recently, living American socialists had no experience tackling the question of how the working-class movement might wield state power. For that matter, socialists today lack firsthand experience with any mass working-class movement at all

Earlier generations of American socialists had a bigger impact on the labor movement than they did on elections; even during American socialism’s nadir in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, small socialist groups made important and outsized contributions to labor, antiwar, and social movement organizing. But until very recently, they were swimming against the tide of history.

This history means socialists in the United States need to look elsewhere for insights into how to wield the power of the democratic capitalist state that we now could enter, via Sanders. Perhaps the most useful case study: Salvador Allende’s presidency in Chile from 1970–73.

Despite its ultimate failure at the hands of a US-backed coup — arguably made easier by Allende’s own mistakes — Allende enacted a political revolution in Chile. Among the historical examples we have, it also came closest to developing a successful democratic socialist revolution.

Allende was elected in 1970 as a candidate of the Popular Unity coalition. Popular Unity consisted of the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, and smaller formations of non-Marxist socialists and syndicalists. In his first speech as president to Chile’s congress, he promised the “progressive establishment of a new structure of power, founded on the will of the majority” and a

transition towards socialism . . . characterized by the selective overcoming of the present system. This will be achieved by destroying or abandoning its negative and oppressive features and by strengthening and broadening its positive features.

In other words, because Chile had a long history of capitalist democracy with comparatively free and fair elections and a progressively expanding electorate, Popular Unity’s strategy was to claim a democratic mandate to use the state to transfer wealth and power from the capitalist class to the working class.

In the Bloody Labyrinth

But even with a Marxist as head of state, Chilean and foreign capitalists still controlled the economy and continued to hold a great amount of influence over the state, particularly the military. Allende spent much of his time in office in a balancing act, trying to build worker power and self-confidence while not provoking capitalists into attacking to a degree the Chilean working class and his government could not yet withstand. Ultimately, he was unsuccessful.

Allende continually reassured the public that the revolution — which he defined as “the transfer of power from a minority class to a majority class” — would be conducted through legal, financial, and parliamentary channels. Bernie Sanders’s call for a “political revolution” echoes this strategy.

Allende’s critics on the Chilean left argued that his government gave capitalists and the Right too much time and leeway to sabotage his policies, to the extent that it sometimes tamped down worker self-organization when workers took more aggressive action against capitalists than the government did.

In an essential — and largely supportive — essay written after the coup, Ralph Miliband summed up this view, writing that Allende’s government was

least able or willing to tackle the most difficult problem, that presented by the military. Instead, it appears to have sought to buy the latter’s support and goodwill by conciliation and concessions, right up to the time of the coup, notwithstanding the ever-growing evidence of the military’s hostility.

In the same essay, Miliband quotes the leader of the Chilean Socialist Party as saying, of Allende, “the best way of precipitating a confrontation [with capitalists and reactionaries] and to make it even more bloody is to turn one’s back upon it.”

Allende’s defenders, and Allende himself, countered that he adopted a strategy suitable to the political culture in which he operated, and that there was no guarantee that faster or more aggressive action would have garnered majority support. But it would — in Allende’s mind — have led inevitably to civil war.

There is no clear-cut answer to this dilemma, except perhaps that the Left and any working-class government need to have a clearer sense of what the working class is willing to fight for and how aggressively it is willing to fight, in order to calibrate the state’s actions accordingly.

For that reason, it is essential for the Left to develop a well-organized political base allied with but independent of working-class forces within the state. It is critical that these connections based on trust and shared struggle be forged before moments of crisis. As French journalist Régis Debray put it, referring to the socialist government and Chilean capitalists, “the path from polite hatred to open hostilities is shorter than either side had thought.”

We shouldn’t expect slaughter or a coup as a result of Sanders winning election. Then again, in 2016 few Americans expected the government to construct concentration camps under highway bridges or force toddlers to represent themselves in court without their parents.

Unlike Allende, Sanders does not publicly call for a break with capitalism, and he shows little interest in fundamentally altering the nature of the state he seeks to lead. But we should be prepared for capitalists and the Right to oppose Sanders at every turn even more aggressively than they opposed Obama or other Democrats. Unlike them, Sanders really is implacably opposed to their power and privileges, and dead set on undermining them.

It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which a right-wing judiciary rules against every action Sanders takes, Republicans and conservative Democrats refuse to confirm any of his appointees or pass a budget, corporations rush to blame job cuts or the burst of the currently inflating economic bubble on Sanders’s policies, and entrenched bureaucrats in the defense and law enforcement establishment seek to undermine any reforms he attempts. Meanwhile, the press accelerates the red-baiting and other extreme distortions that have led to progressive politicians receiving hundreds of death threats — threats that recent history has shown are hardly empty.

Not Me, Us

Like in Chile, Sanders’s ultimate success or failure in the face of these challenges will rest on the extent to which the working class mobilizes to support his positions. In a point Sanders would echo at the beginning of his 2020 campaign, Allende warned against overemphasizing himself as the essential agent of change in an interview with Régis Debray:

The notion that history is based on personalities [i.e. himself] is a common delusion among the bourgeois class. . . . The social process is not going to disappear because one of its leaders disappears. It may be delayed or prolonged, but in the long run, it can’t be stopped.

This is an especially important point for the contemporary left to keep in mind. Sanders was essentially a lone operator for decades; in many ways his current popularity is due to the rest of the country catching up to him rather than any new organizing initiative on his part. The growth of organizations like Our Revolution and the Democratic Socialists of America did not cause but rather followed Sander’s rise in popularity.

As Meagan Day put it recently,

In a different, perhaps more ideal scenario, an openly socialist presidential candidacy would be the culmination of an intensive decades-long political project. The candidate would rise organically through the ranks of a dynamic and powerful organized Left. That Left would consist of, among other things, strong left-wing unions, innumerable community groups knitted into tight coalitions, and a mass political party with a democratic membership structure and credible means of candidate discipline. The candidate would emerge as the leader of a substantial movement made up of rock-solid working-class institutions.

But that’s not how things have played out.

Therefore there is a special danger in putting too much faith in Sanders as an individual on the one hand, and on the other dismissing him due to his real shortcomings to the extent we miss the political possibilities his campaign has created.

Because it is currently too weak to raise a candidate from within a grassroots movement, the Left is now in the process of jury-rigging a (hopefully) enduring movement around a candidate. That doesn’t mean the Left should decline to support Sanders; in supporting him, the contemporary left is playing the hand it was dealt. Ignoring a massive national campaign that is reintroducing class rhetoric and socialism into mainstream American politics would squander an important opportunity to change the world and consign the Left to decades more of obscurity.

This is perhaps the most important lesson the contemporary American left can take from Popular Unity to apply in 2019 and 2020: Sanders cannot do it on his own.

Sanders’s role is to win the election and to govern, and we should certainly do everything we can to help him. But our role — what we on the Left alone can do — is to build enough trust with Sanders’s supporters and other members of the class such that we can organize working people to fight. We’ve already seen years of polite hatred for Bernie and his supporters. We’d better prepare for open hostilities.