Chile’s Socialist Resurgence Is a Century in the Making

Joshua Frens-String

Gabriel Boric’s presidential victory and a new constitution are the crowning achievements of Chile’s broad socialist movement. Now comes the hard part: fulfilling a vision of working-class prosperity that stretches back to Salvador Allende and beyond.

The Monument to Salvador Allende in Santiago, Chile. (David Berkowitz / Flickr)

Interview by
Nicolas Allen

It took the Chilean left over fifty years to return to power, and the victory is worth savoring. Still, Gabriel Boric, the new president-elect of Chile, will take office on March 11, 2022, with a daunting mandate: to begin the arduous work of dismantling a deeply entrenched neoliberal system and fulfill the lofty expectations for a more robust, constitutionally enshrined welfare state.

Boric may take some solace in knowing that his victory is the latest in a centuries-long struggle to make Chilean society a place of working-class well-being and prosperity. That was the dream of Salvador Allende when, in 1939, the still fresh-faced socialist physician assumed the role of health minister for the left-wing governing alliance of Pedro Aguirre Cerda’s Popular Front administration.

Allende would go on in 1970 to become the famed leader of the “Chilean path to socialism”: an unprecedented thousand-day-long experiment in popular governance that included nationalizations of key industries, the creation of working-class institutions of representation, and, perhaps most controversially, a program for radical, accelerated agrarian reform.

By some accounts, it was actually the agrarian reform program that triggered the 1973 coup against Allende’s Popular Unity government: his push to redistribute land, place food distribution under worker control, and create worker-regulated food markets was a bridge too far for Chile’s landed elite, midsize business owners, middle-class consumers, and their military and political allies.

In his new book Hungry for Revolution: The Politics of Food and the Making of Modern Chile, historian Joshua Frens-String shows that underlying the drive for agrarian reform and consumer protections was a vision of working-class abundance — what Allende called the “Revolution of Wine and Empanadas” — that had deep roots in Chile’s century-old socialist movement. In fact, in Frens-String’s account, the Chilean path to socialism was as much about creating a vibrant consumer society as it was democracy, albeit a socialist consumer society.

Frens-String traces the history of Allende’s 1970 government all the way back to the 1910s and ’20s, when working-class nutrition became the banner of a fledgling Chilean socialist movement; he follows that story through to the 1930s, when the left-wing Popular Front government put “food politics” at the heart of its campaign to define the good life as one of both prosperity and nutritional equality. And he shows how debates around food production shaped the thinking of Chile’s economic planners trying simultaneously to overcome underdevelopment while guaranteeing adequate caloric intake for the Chilean masses in the 1950s and ’60s.

Hungry for Revolution is a unique and necessary history of the Chilean left, and has a great deal to say about the future of Chilean socialist and progressive politics. Today, amid calls to include a clause in Chile’s new constitution that would protect the right to healthy and sustainable nutrition and against the backdrop of a growing food crisis in which working-class Chileans are taking on unprecedented household debt just to fill their pantries, Hungry for Revolution is as much a book about the past as it is the future.

Jacobin contributing editor Nicolas Allen spoke to Frens-String to learn more about how the working-class dream of “wine and empanadas” became the basis for a political revolution, and how that dream can be revived amid a left-wing resurgence in Chile today.

Nicolas Allen

Speak about the initial inspiration for your book. On the surface, it seems to be about a fairly niche topic, “food politics” and history of popular consumption in Chile. But as you read on, you realize that it’s actually a retelling of the history of the 20th-century Chilean left that touches on almost every issue imaginable: agrarian reform, development, state planning, markets, worker control, democracy, popular power — really, the issues that the Chilean left spent decades debating and arguing over.

Joshua Frens-String

Yes, my goals in writing the book were, first, to show how food politics and the food system offer a window into the history of these various issues. But second, I wanted to show that the struggle over how food was produced, how it was distributed, and how it was consumed during the twentieth century actually drove political and economic change in Chile. In many ways, the battle over the food system came to define the meaning of and set the parameters for a more inclusive state and a more capacious, social understanding of citizenship.

Apart from that, one thing that fascinated me personally and really inspired my research is the fact that a democratically elected socialist government — Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity coalition (1970–73) — was followed immediately afterward by the global premiere of neoliberalism in 1973. In Hungry for Revolution, I try to think about how those two diametrically opposed systems of economic organization could coexist in the same country within a roughly ten-year period of one another.

Scholars and activists have highlighted that a defining feature of the Chilean neoliberal experience has been how it became a uniquely consumer-driven society, where consumer freedom is often held up by promoters of neoliberal policies as the metric by which citizenship should be measured. In Augusto Pinochet’s Chile and after, notions of robust social and economic citizenship were replaced by an idea of a society of consumers who express their preferences and act in the marketplace rather than, say, through mass political organizations.

As I began to try to understand how those two apparently incongruous political tendencies could follow one another in rapid succession, I went back in time and realized that there was no necessary or logical association between the political right and a “consumer society.” In fact, the Right didn’t even talk much about consumption during the early or mid-twentieth century. If anything, the language of consumption and a consumer society was something associated with progressive movements going back to the 1910s, ’20s and ’30s, all the way up to the revolutionary years of the 1970s. It was the Left that was arguing all that time that citizens deserved a basic right to consumption.

Granted, it was a different type of consumption than the neoliberal version, and I make a careful distinction in the book between a consumption politics that emphasized consumption as a right of citizenship and neoliberal consumerism, which suggested that consumption was a market-based privilege rather than a guaranteed right. The former was a hallmark of the labor movement and of the Communist Party, as well as middle-class reform movements throughout the twentieth century: making sure that Chilean citizens had a basic right to consume a whole host of goods that were considered subsistence goods or staples. As the movement grew, the list of what were considered “staples” also grew.

By the mid-twentieth century, this left-wing emphasis on consumption led a host of actors — economists, scientists, and state officials — to think critically about how to produce consumer goods, how those goods should be distributed throughout the economy, and how the whole orientation of economic development could be geared toward realizing an “abundant” modern society.

Another thing that interested me about Chile is the origins of the Popular Unity revolution in the early 1970s. There’s a traditional narrative, especially in the United States, that places that revolution within the global Cold War context as a satellite struggle for the larger global struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. If you take the history of the Popular Unity revolution back three or four decades, you find a more interesting domestic story about the origins of the Popular Unity government that reaches back to political organizing in the 1930s through the Chilean Popular Front.

The Chilean Popular Front was a historic coalition that for the first time anywhere in the Americas brought together the Socialist Party and the Communist Party in a broad governing coalition. When we tie together those two historical moments in the 1930s and ’40s and the 1970s, we gain a new perspective for thinking about the Popular Unity years as more than a simple footnote to the Cold War. The struggle over food as a right of citizenship certainly illuminates this longer history of what the Popular Unity revolution was all about.

Nicolas Allen

You mention in the book that Salvador Allende was minister of health in the Popular Front government in 1939. In a way, that’s one of the most interesting contrasts between Chile and, say, Brazil or Argentina. In the 1930s or ’40s, many of Latin America’s populist governments had a similar agenda of pursuing redistribution policies and explicitly trying to tackle the issue of working-class nutrition and consumption. But Chile seems unique in that the issue of working-class nutrition was — and remained for decades — a banner of the socialist left.

Joshua Frens-String

That’s right. If you look at Brazil, Argentina, or Mexico in the 1920s and ’30s, the story of the state’s trying to protect or guarantee popular consumption looks similar throughout Latin America. What happened in Chile is somewhat distinct in that, as you say, it was the political left — socialists, communists, progressive Catholics — that adopted these sorts of demands and put them at the center of their political programs.

Juan Domingo Perón in Argentina and Getúlio Vargas in Brazil had more traditionally populist programs — they didn’t identify with the Left so much as they did with a more ambiguous nationalist agenda. By contrast, there was a much stronger ideological component to consumption demands in Chile, because movements like the Communist Party and Socialist Party very deliberately understood these issues to be part of their organizing efforts and their vision of a socialist society very early in the twentieth century.

The idea of guaranteeing a basic right to food or protecting popular nutrition may not itself be an inherently “leftist” idea, but leftist parties in Chile made it so by using consumption demands to reach both the growing urban working class and those in an even more precarious position. Many rural workers in the 1930s moved from the Chilean countryside to the cities, and consumption politics became a way of attracting them into the broad tent of the political left as well.

Nicolas Allen

Before we get deeper into the history of the Chilean left and how it made popular nutrition its flagship cause, there’s a particular idea in Hungry for Revolution that resonates powerfully today. Food, as your book shows so well, is an unusual commodity in that it is strongly associated both with social necessity and economic freedom: there are all kinds of twentieth-century policies like state planning, price controls, and production quotas aimed precisely to guarantee basic food access for populations. But food is also at the center of powerful ideas about consumer choice, pleasure, and basic market freedoms.

Joshua Frens-String

The anthropologist Sidney Mintz wrote about this when he argued that food was an interesting lens to look at society through because it puts into relief two tensions. On the one hand, people want state regulations to protect their physical health, safety, and the affordability of basic foods. At the same time, food also highlights the issue of individual choice: consumers don’t want to be told what to eat and how to eat. People often think that the kitchen table is a protected private space, and any state attempt to tell people what to eat or how to eat has, in different moments, been met with protest.

Food historian Rachel Laudan uses the idea of “culinary modernism” to refer to a similar tension between need and choice; her concept emphasizes how general living standards and consumer well-being has improved when states have harnessed modern technology to make the food more accessible and food production less laborious. This is basically the story of the first five chapters of Hungry for Revolution, where all the different left-wing Chilean political movements throughout history were trying to regulate the economy and adopt new technological and scientific understandings of nutrition to meet working people’s basic needs and demands.

At that point, from the 1930s to 1970s, there was not a huge debate about providing a wide array of consumer options to people. It was really about establishing quantitative or measurable metrics, and making sure workers had access to, for example, enough calories, proper sources of protein, and eventually things like fruits and vegetables and milk — things that fell under the broad category of what were called “protective foods”.

If we look at Salvador Allende’s nutrition policies, his focus on food during the Popular Unity years was very much a continuation of this tradition. He made milk accessible to Chilean children, and famously, when there were beef shortages in Chile, Allende asked people to eat fish instead because it was a simple way of substituting one protein for another.

In practice, the politics of this proved more challenging. During the Popular Unity revolution there were also major food protests over shortages of very specific types of goods. Though there was not famine like you could see in other parts of the world in the early twentieth century, when goods that consumers had learned to associate with a “good life” were in short supply, they became objects of protest. People had come to expect beef and didn’t want to eat a substitute, even if nutrition scientists said a substitute like fish was just as good, if not better.

Hence, many of the anti-Allende protests were organized around the idea of choice. Protest leaders began to emphasize that choice and the ability to have consumer options should be the new metric by which the proper functioning of a consumer society should be measured. And that mentality highlights the formation of a social base that was opposed to Allende and that later, in the post-Allende period, supported the policies of neoliberalism.

By focusing on struggles around consumption during the Popular Unity revolution, you begin to see how a base of support for what would become neoliberalism came into existence — not necessarily among workers and the urban or rural poor, but that message really resonated among middle-class sectors. It’s also there that we find society turning away from thinking about collective needs and focusing on government policies that emphasize choice as the be-all and end-all of the economy.

Nicolas Allen

Perhaps we should take a step back and review the long history of the Chilean left leading up to the Allende years. Why was hunger such an issue in early twentieth-century Chile in the first place? How did hunger become not just a social issue, but a left-wing one?

Joshua Frens-String

I spend the first couple chapters of the book really addressing that question. As the book argues, hunger was a central way in which political movements articulated the “social question” and made their demands on the state.

It’s important to understand that this idea of hunger is really a social or political construction. It’s not necessarily an objective or static condition that people were experiencing in any one moment so much as it became a political language that was constructed based on perceived experiences.

Chile had very interesting connections to the global economy at the turn of the twentieth century: it was actually the provider for much of the mineral fertilizer that fueled the rise of agricultural — and, by extension, consumer — abundance in other parts of the world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Chilean nitrates mined from the Atacama Desert were a fuel for the rise of intensive agricultural practices, especially in the United States and Europe at that time.

There, in the Atacama Desert, Chilean nitrate miners came to understand their poor living and working conditions in relation to the abundance they were producing. They saw their own experience of exploitation in the scarcity and high cost of foodstuffs, and time and again pointed this out through protests against the state and private capitalists.

When the nitrate economy went bust, initially after World War I and then definitively after the Great Depression, those workers ended up migrating to urban areas of Chile, particularly the capital Santiago. And hunger quickly became a rallying cry for some of the first social and political movements that took center stage in those developing urban environments. There’s a fascinating political movement that emerged right after World War I, the National Workers’ Assembly for Nutrition (Asamblea Obrera de Alimentación Nacional, AOAN), which mobilized against high food prices and, among other things, called for state-backed price controls on key consumer goods. These demonstrations were some of the largest in twentieth-century Chilean history.

The AOAN went beyond this, though. It was one of the first movements to make political demands for comprehensive agrarian reform, for major tax reforms so that certain scarce goods could enter Chile more easily from abroad, and so that basic consumer goods would not leave Chile as exports but rather be diverted to urban consumers. Many of those demands were actually met in 1932, when Chile became the first country anywhere in the hemisphere to establish a permanent national price control office. This predates, for example, the Office of Price Administration in the United States, which was the price control office created as part of the New Deal in 1941, as World War II was kicking into high gear.

I argue in the book that the AOAN was the movement that provided both the political and economic model for the Popular Front in the 1930s — which, later in the book, I try to show was the precursor to Allende’s Popular Unity coalition. The AOAN was a place where socialists, communists, and anarchists all joined together for the first time.

Nicolas Allen

This is a bit tangential, but since you mentioned the New Deal: some of the things we’re talking about remind me of policies proposed by Henry A. Wallace, the progressive politician who served as secretary of agriculture during the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. Is that just a coincidence?

Joshua Frens-String

Actually, I think Henry Wallace’s vision of a global New Deal was similar to what many Chileans in the Popular Front period were calling for in the late 1930s and early 1940s: a kind of hemispheric New Deal. Many Chilean reformers — especially given their support for US war efforts — even expected something like that to happen after World War II.

Even if that didn’t happen, I like to think that what did happen in Chile — especially from the 1960s forward, and particularly with agrarian reform and then Allende being elected — as really the fulfillment of Henry Wallace’s vision: a system rooted in economic democracy, where there’s increased popular participation by both rural and urban workers to ensure that every Chilean had, to paraphrase Wallace’s words, a quart of milk each day. Wallace’s dream was deferred and ultimately eclipsed in the United States, but one could argue that it lived on in interesting ways through the mid-century Latin American left.

Wallace in fact did make a fascinating visit to Chile in 1943 and was greeted like a king. The historian Jody Pavilack has a chapter on this in her book Mining for the Nation: The Politics of Chile’s Coal Communities from the Popular Front to the Cold War, which is about coal miners during the Popular Front period. Wallace was beloved by the political left in Chile, and Wallace actually held up Chile during the Popular Front years as a symbol of what social and economic democracy could look like in the Americas.

Nicolas Allen

Getting back to Chile and the early twentieth century: I know during that period there were episodic instances of working-class activity focused on consumption and reproduction — the 1907 tenant strike in Buenos Aires is a famous example. But the Chilean movement seems exceptional both for its intensity and durability.

Joshua Frens-String

Yes, there were all types of different consumer leagues that started in the 1930s in Chile and around the Americas. Again, those were the years leading up to the election of the Chilean Popular Front, a period when militants of different left-leaning political parties, and women in particular, went out to survey the consumer marketplace to make sure that price controls were being followed by shopkeepers. In certain instances, they themselves actually expropriated and redistributed goods that were being hoarded or not sold at the proper prices by shopkeepers. These actions represented one model of participatory or direct economic democracy.

Later, approaching the mid-twentieth century, as Chile’s developmental welfare state took shape, state officials began to work with scientists, engineers, and agricultural experts to implement food and nutrition policies. These welfare and regulatory policies were a response to earlier citizen mobilizations, but at the same time, they were an attempt to contain the power of social movements that had organized around issues of food justice and equity.

In a sense, the Popular Unity years were proof that citizen mobilization around food had not subsided or been wholly contained. This was most evident in the 1970s with the creation of neighborhood price inspection boards, known as Juntas de Abastecimiento y Precios (Committees of Supplies and Prices), or JAPs. The JAPs were exemplary of what was known as “poder popular” or popular power during the Popular Unity revolution, and it’s important to see the origins of those left-wing experiments with direct economic participation and forms of consumer-based economic democracy in the prior decades. It was then that consumers first took on the role that they wanted the state to handle.

Nicolas Allen

As you said, by the time we reach the 1950s and the heyday of the Latin American developmentalist state, that regulatory role for nutrition and food access had been reabsorbed by the Chilean state. It also seems like it was in that period that we find the first explicit recognition — at least by the Chilean state — of a strategic connection between agrarian reform and improved living standards of the urban masses.

Joshua Frens-String

Yes, I think the history of food and consumption gives us a new historical understanding of why and how the developmentalist state, or social welfare state, emerged as it did in Latin America. Still, food policies and consumer regulation were explicitly understood, at least by agents of the state, as a way to contain potential popular political unrest that had already been made very evident by earlier political mobilizations in Chile.

It’s against that background that we find in Chile the creation of numerous state agencies whose purpose was to calculate how many calories, proteins, fruits, vegetables, and milk that different sectors of the population needed to consume. It then became the job of other agencies to implement productive policies that made it more possible for Chile to meet those nutritional needs through domestic production, as opposed to depending on food imports from abroad.

Similar to the containment efforts targeting urban social movements, by the 1950s and early ’60s, the push for agrarian reform — at least as far as the state was concerned — was seen as a way of containing rural working populations that were beginning to exercise greater and greater political power through unionization drives and land occupations.

To be sure, rural workers’ mobilization helped bring the need for agrarian reform center stage. But urban reformers, following the work of structuralist economists in the 1950s and early 1960s, were also adamant that land redistribution would improve domestic food production. And more efficient domestic food production meant lower food prices and less dependence on foreign food imports.

The structuralist economic interpretation of underdevelopment began to hinge on making the rural countryside more productive, producing enough food for urban consumers so that foreign exchange could buy other industrial technologies in the international marketplace. Food sovereignty was a prerequisite for greater economic sovereignty and economic modernity.

That’s one way to think about agrarian reform. There was also a debate taking place among structuralist economists in the 1950s and ’60s about the origins of consumer inflation. Inflation is this kind of boogeyman throughout twentieth-century Chilean history, and the economists who were gathered at places like the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLA) were arguing that inflation is primarily driven by a low supply of food and rising demand; that is, that the disequilibrium between those two is making food and other consumer goods increasingly expensive, and that there was a necessity to increase supply to bring it closer in line with growing urban demand.

Nicolas Allen

It’s also in that part of the book that you show how Chilean state agencies began to talk about consumer behavior and population statistics in a more technocratic way, using terms like “model consumers” that, to my ears, sound a bit like the language of the World Bank.

Joshua Frens-String

Absolutely, and they used that kind of language especially when talking about women as consumers. Many reformers saw women, as the heads of households, as the cause of nutritional problems. The Popular Front and its supporters were certainly also guilty of using some very gendered, heteronormative language in their pursuit of better nutritional outcomes.

In fact, as the Cold War began, around 1946 or ’47, women began to be seen pretty much exclusively as a problem, so that the state’s goal was to alter women’s consumer habits: what they buy, what they feed their families, and so on. In resolving that problem, it was thought, you could get the country on better developmental footing. Obviously, that’s a very limited and depoliticized vision of women’s political agency, and ultimately, it proved to be an attempt to demobilize women politically after a Popular-Front-style Chilean feminist movement had organized them in the late 1930s and ’40s.

Nicolas Allen

Although they would recover some type of agency again in the Allende years, through women-led popular institutions like the Price Boards, right? As you already alluded to before, the long arc of Chilean socialism comes into particularly sharp relief when we follow the specific theme of food and nutrition politics.

Joshua Frens-String

That’s right. The various dimensions of Chile’s food struggles set the stage for Allende’s Popular Unity revolution. With the benefit of historical distance, we might even say that the early 1970s were a kind of culminating moment in Chilean history. When viewed through the lens of food, you really see how these different economic justice struggles came to a head. I like to think of the Popular Unity period as an attempt to resolve some of the earlier contradictions that had built up throughout the history of the Chilean left.

Allende’s acceleration of agrarian reform was a case in point. Building on the work and ideas of his predecessors, Allende tried very concertedly to meet demands of urban consumers while at the same time meeting the demands for land and better working conditions being raised by rural peasants. Guaranteeing better living conditions, better working conditions, while also trying to ramp up economic production in the countryside so urban consumers have enough to eat — that’s a very difficult balancing act to pull off.

So, Allende was trying to resolve a whole series of things at once, and actually, for the first year of his government, he had considerable success, at least economically. There was a year of tremendous abundance that is too often forgotten, or overshadowed, by the difficult months that preceded the 1973 coup. During the Popular Unity’s first year in power, Allende successfully raised working-class wages and raised agricultural production when it came to Chile’s most essential goods. The supermarkets were well-stocked and other stores selling consumer goods were abundantly supplied — people were generally quite happy. For these reasons, 1971 is sometimes referred to as a “fiesta de consumo” (consumer party).

Popular Unity ran into trouble as its second year in power began. Inflation started to creep up again; there were increasing shortages for essential goods like beef, but also a lot of imported goods; and the United States was blocking Chile’s access to new credit, making it much more difficult to import goods from abroad. There also were growing tensions within Allende’s coalition about the best way to push the revolution forward: whether it was better to radicalize the revolution and give political power to its grassroots base, or to consolidate at the top by making gestures of peace and reconciliation to middle sectors — the Christian Democrats, in particular — and push forward with a more sort of top-down revolution.

Again, the history of food offers an interesting window to think about that tension between a top-down revolution and a bottom-up revolution. But even more than that, the struggle for food fueled this tension — or at the very least was an arena in which this tension played out.

The primary example in the Popular Unity years was the JAPs — the neighborhood price and supply boards — that carried out similar functions of neighborhood consumer inspection as the consumer leagues of the 1930s and ’40s. The JAPs diverged from the Popular Front experience in that they were not only monitoring things that were going on in the consumer marketplace but actually directed distribution channels as well. Food from agrarian reform settlements was being given to these boards by state distribution companies to distribute directly to peripheral or underserved urban communities.

Through the price and supply boards, Popular Unity militants were actually rethinking the logistical system or supply chain by which food and consumer essentials moved through the economy. They were reconsidering the relationships that connected production, distribution, exchange, and consumption. But as these groups gained more power and independence, Allende and his top officials became concerned that they were losing their grip over the speed and direction of the revolution.

Nicolas Allen

That vacillation between a top-down and bottom-up revolution seems to have been a tragic hallmark of the Popular Unity government. Do you think that indecisiveness was his Achilles heel, that is, Allende’s indecision about whether to expand the ruling coalition toward the Christian Democrats or give more power to independent working-class institutions like the ones we’re talking about?

Joshua Frens-String

I think that there was a belief on the part of Allende and his closest advisers that economic change or structural reform alone could produce all the other changes that society needed; that he could just fulfill these pent-up demands for consumption and material security and then that would pave the road to more profound social changes at some point down the road.

But Allende struggled to understand the necessity of implementing major political changes too. He never dismantled the political power held by opposition sectors in the Congress; the landowner interests still had an incredible amount of power there, as well as in the judiciary, and he was very hesitant to embrace popular power and give more decision-making power to local communities, workers, grassroots organization, and so on. Allende was very intent on maintaining the political and constitutional architecture of the country intact while he focused instead on economic restructuring.

Nicolas Allen

And then, of course, there was the political opposition. Your book is interesting because it sets aside the familiar actors — the Chicago Boys, Henry Kissinger, the CIA, trucker strikes, hoarders, economic saboteurs — to put the spotlight on Chilean middle sectors and show how their ideas of consumption fed directly into the coup and its aftermath.

Joshua Frens-String

The counterrevolutionary actors that became well known during the Pinochet dictatorship really began to organize in the final years of the Popular Unity revolution. It was then that right-wing middle- and upper-class women, as consumers and guardians of the household economy, began to make demands for Allende to step down from office. It was also the moment when middlemen and distributors became very upset with alternative channels of food and consumer distribution, and they too began to call for Allende to be removed from power. And then there were the landowners, who were very upset about their agricultural lands being expropriated by the state and redistributed to small landowners.

So, there was a confluence of consumers, distributors, and producers cohering into an oppositional bloc against Allende, and it was that social base that Pinochet and the Chicago Boys, his neoliberal economic advisers, came to rely upon after the coup in an attempt to legitimate their program. They provided economic ideas and a new program to this already existing constituency of disillusioned, very frustrated social and political actors in Chile.

This is all meant to complicate a bit the more simplistic narrative about an omnipotent United States in the broader Cold War context, coming in and simply toppling a popular, democratically elected government in Chile without Chilean actors playing a key role. The government of Allende was certainly popular at different moments, and it was certainly democratically elected. But as a historian, I think it is important to also recognize that Allende faced a sizable domestic opposition — and we need more research about the ideas around which that opposition organized and united itself. Having women homemakers, small and large distributors, shopkeepers, and landowners in the same political coalition was quite unprecedented for the time.

Nicolas Allen

One thing that has stuck with me throughout our discussion is how slippery the idea of “abundance” really is. Capitalism teaches us that our idea of abundance should be as boundless as our wildest consumer desires; meanwhile, Allende tried to convince Chileans that a nutritious meal was its own form of abundance — even if steak was not on the menu. Now that the Left is back in power in Chile and Gabriel Boric has promised to turn a set of basic social and economic goods into inalienable rights, do you think it’s important to look back at what Allende did right or wrong?

Joshua Frens-String

I think Allende’s vision of socialism remained overly rooted in a belief that economic change was all that was needed to set the stage for broader social or political changes. When it came to food, Allende didn’t fully appreciate how both hunger and abundance were shaped by more than just economic factors; the meanings of both hunger and abundance were constructed through political struggle and evolved over the course of the twentieth century.

Allende sometimes had a static understanding of abundance as this thing out there that one could eventually reach or obtain. For food, it was about reaching satisfactory levels of caloric intake, satisfactory levels of protein consumption, and so on. He rarely considered the importance of culture in food politics — that certain foods have social significance or that taste can become political.

I think some of Allende’s critics on the Left — people who often were a part of the revolutionary Left, as well as progressive Catholics — had begun by 1973 to be critical of the idea that consumer abundance was achievable in the short term, or that this should be the primary focus of the revolution. Some on the Left began to talk about how the revolution needed to think about a new ethics of consumption that focused on other things like restraint and sacrifice.

The Christian Left as well as the Revolutionary Left Movement (Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria, MIR), which was not part of the Popular Unity coalition, began arguing with increasing force that Allende needed to also focus his attention on dismantling the sources of political power that stood behind the old system — that economic change alone would not be sustainable as long as the political power and influence of those who controlled the economy were allowed to persist.

One could argue that this was a tragic lesson of Allende’s overthrow: that unless you think about the political and economic dimensions of a revolution together, the old system will remain intact, in one way or another.

Today, I think that many on the Chilean left — particularly those who first coalesced in the Apruebo Dignidad coalition before the October 2020 plebiscite to rewrite Chile’s constitution and who have now elected Gabriel Boric as president — have learned some important lessons from the Popular Unity years. Most notably, Chile today is in the process of writing a new constitution. This is something that Allende always hesitated to pursue.

If you go back to the 2011 student movement in Chile, or even before, with the high school student movement of 2007, you can see the emergence of a politics oriented around decommodifying education, health care, and housing, and a growing awareness that none of that can be accomplished in a lasting way under the current political system.

There’s a real understanding on the contemporary Chilean left that the political architecture of the country needs to change so that economic reforms can be sustained and consolidated. The historic nature of what we’re seeing right now in Chile should not be underestimated.