- Interview by
- Régis Debray
After his victory in the 1970 presidential election and inauguration as Chile’s president, Salvador Allende sat down with the French left-wing writer Régis Debray for a wide-ranging discussion of his political vision. The record of their discussion was published in English translation by New Left Books in 1971 under the title Conversations With Allende. Verso has now republished the book with a new introduction by the Chilean scholar Camila Vergara. In the following extracts from Conversations With Allende, the socialist leader discusses his background and political formation as well as the danger of a violent right-wing backlash against his Popular Unity government.
Comrade President, does a man change when he is in power?
Well, Régis, people always used to call me “comrade Allende” and now they say “comrade President.” Obviously, I’m aware of the responsibility that this implies.
Does a socialist militant change when he becomes head of state?
No. I believe that the head of state who is a socialist remains a socialist, but his actions must be consonant with reality.
It really is something new to find a socialist in power who still feels and acts as a socialist! There aren’t all that many examples of this, comrade.
I know, unfortunately this is true. Nor are there many socialist parties that are Marxist in the true meaning of the term.
What was the basis of your personal, political education? How did you come to join the Socialist Party?
I didn’t join the Socialist Party, Régis — I am a founder, one of the founders of the Socialist Party.
My question would be: “Why socialist rather than communist?”
Well now, when we founded the Socialist Party, the Communist Party already existed, but we analyzed the situation in Chile, and we believed that there was a place for a party that, while holding similar views in terms of philosophy and doctrine — a Marxist approach to the interpretation of history — would be a party free of ties of an international nature. However, this did not mean that we would disavow proletarian internationalism.
I understand that there was a certain amount of sectarianism at the time . . .
You know quite well there was. The Communist Party was characteristically a closed, inward-looking party, and we believed that what was required was a party based, I repeat, on the same ideas, but that would have a much broader outlook, would be completely independent, and would adopt other tactics geared specifically to deal with the problems of Chile according to standards that are not dominated by international criteria.
I know that you are not a theoretician, but what one might call a firm conceptual foundation is apparent in your actions and speeches. So I wonder how you came to become a Marxist-Leninist?
Well, the fact is that during my student days — I’m talking about ’26 and ’27 when I had just started reading medicine — we medical students were the most advanced.
Rather than the philosophers or “humanists” in the Faculty of Letters?
Yes. The medical students were traditionally the most advanced. At that time, we lived in a very humble district, we practically lived with the people, most of us were from the provinces and those of us living in the same hostel used to meet at night for readings of Das Kapital, and Lenin, and also Trotsky.
It is said that this is where you differed from the Communist Party comrades, in that they didn’t read Trotsky, I suppose.
Well, I believe that there are those who will tell you that the Communist Party would not read him, but there were no such barriers for us. I am well aware that there is no revolutionary action without revolutionary theory, but I am essentially a man of action. Since my student days I have always been in the front line of the struggle, and this has taught me a lot.
Comrade President, you come from a fairly well-off family, one might say a bourgeois family . . .
In orthodox terms, yes, my origins are bourgeois, but I would add that my family was not associated with the economically powerful sector of the bourgeoisie, since my parents were members of what are known as the liberal professions, as were my mother’s family.
And where did they stand politically?
In Chile the struggle against conservatism was very violent during the last century, and it was fought out on a religious front. The conservatives opposed all progressive moves, such as the establishment of lay education.
All my uncles and my father were Radical Party militants at a time when being a radical meant that one held advanced views. My grandfather founded the first lay school in Chile and his political views earned him the nickname of “Red Allende.”
And since then . . .
Since then the family has maintained the tradition.
So family tradition could have influenced your upbringing. Do you remember any other kinds of influence?
When I was a boy of about fourteen or fifteen, I used to hang around the shop of a shoemaker, an anarchist called Juan Demarchi, to hear him talk and exchange views with him. That was in Valparaiso at the time when I was at grammar school. After the school day, I used to go and converse with this anarchist, who was a great influence on my life as a boy. He was sixty or perhaps sixty-three and he was quite happy to talk with me. He taught me how to play chess, he spoke to me of the things of life, and he lent me books . . .
All the essentially theoretical works, so to speak, like Bakunin, for example, but the most important thing was Demarchi’s commentaries because I didn’t have the temperament for reading in depth; he explained things to me with the simplicity and clarity that one finds in self-taught workers.
Having been associated with many bourgeois institutions, the most representative of the regime into the bargain, how have you managed to become a leader of the masses, the prime mover of a process aimed at revolution?
I have often thought about this question. First, there is an intellectual commitment in youth, and later there is the real commitment with the people. I am a party man and I have always worked with the masses. I am aware of being a grassroots Chilean politician and very close to the people.
Remember, Régis, a great majority of revolutionary leaders have been drawn from the ranks of the middle and lower-middle classes. Some, although they hadn’t suffered the effects of exploitation personally, understood and felt what it was, they realized its implications and came down on the side of the exploited against the exploiters.
I have always brought my political standpoint to bear on those institutions you have enumerated, and this standpoint has always been representative of the people’s desires for social justice, and this is precisely what I’m doing now.
Comrade President, as a Marxist, you are well aware that no social class relinquishes power with good grace. We know that the people are not yet in power, but at least they are in office and to an outside observer it would seem that the change of government took place in a very civilized and stylish manner.
For example, I recently came across a copy of Le Monde in which I read, and I quote: “For the first time in history, in Chile, Marxism is settling comfortably into the seat hitherto occupied by the bourgeois democrats.” Have things really been as easy as that? Have the gentlemen of the previous government really been as benevolent as all that toward the government of Popular Unity?
I think there is a slightly distorted impression with regard to the resistance put up by the reactionaries to our succeeding in office. During the elections, they used every means available. Already in 1958 and 1964, they used lies, calumny and slander, dirty anti-communism, and in 1970, it was worse still.
Well, they were wrong, not us. Such was their insolence that they thought they could win a three-horse race. We won, but I must tell you, Régis — as I told the people, and as I was saying to you only a moment ago — it is difficult, but not impossible to win.
Let me enlarge on this. We beat them by playing to their own rules. Our tactics were right, theirs were wrong. But I said at the time to the people: “Between September 3 and November 4, Chile is going to feel like a football being kicked about by a Pelé.” I expressed it like that so that the people could understand.
Le Monde can say what it likes, but the facts in Chile were very different. From September 4, the day on which I was elected president, till November 3, the date on which I assumed office, I was not a man preparing to take over government. I felt more like a director of public prosecutions.
But wasn’t this job being done by someone from the previous government?
Obviously, there was a director of public prosecutions, but he had no interest in protecting the legal system that had conferred power on Popular Unity. I warned this official, in good time, that a powerful textile industrialist had arranged for a bomb to be planted in his house in order to justify his leaving Chile with his money. The chief of police did nothing, and the bomb went off.
Following our public protests and denouncements, the people implicated in this plot were arrested but the magistrate at the hearing set them free. They were members of an ultrareactionary political party, and they fled the country. To help you understand this case, I should point out that the first phase of this conspiracy on the part of the enemies of Chile and its working class was a campaign of alarmism designed to provoke panic in the weaker sectors.
The plan was that the fear instilled in our weaker friends would spread and thus the next phase of the plot could be put in train. I should add that this was an organized conspiracy. Some of the conspirators made some spectacular withdrawals from the banks, which caused thousands of anxious citizens to draw their money from the savings centers.
The radio and press media spoke in terms of the “danger of Marxism,” and the minister of finance of the outgoing government, instead of pacifying those who were really worried by the campaign of alarmist rumors, made a speech calculated to intensify the false impression of chaos in the country. It was in this climate that the second phase of the conspiracy was put into effect — the bombing of public buildings and monuments, private houses, offices, etc . . . Santiago’s international airport was on the point of being blown up.
Was this the first time such a situation had existed in Chile?
But I’ve only told you the beginning of it. They invented an organization that was supposed to be responsible for the attacks; of course, it was described as a revolutionary organization. The idea was to blame us for the attacks.
Members of the reactionary conspiracy assassinated a uniformed policeman who was on guard duty in a public building, and fired on another, who was seriously wounded; he was on patrol at the entrance of a foreign embassy. Two attempts were made on my life, but failed thanks to the watchfulness of my personal guard of revolutionary comrades.
And the commander in chief of the army was killed instead?
I was the intended victim. Tragically, they killed the commander in chief of the army because he refused to take part in the reactionary conspiracy. The conspirators hoped that the crime would be laid at the door of the political body I represented and that the armed forces, particularly the army, would react politically to prevent the decision of the people bringing us into office from being implemented. However, army intelligence found evidence that points to the origins of the assassins.
Did you feel there was a possibility of civil war? Could you see it coming? Were you afraid of it? How close were you?
Yes, the assassination of General René Schneider proved how close we were. Had the reactionaries kidnapped the commander in chief of the army, we would undoubtedly have been on the verge of civil war. They continued to provoke the armed forces in an attempt to get them to overthrow Congress.
Don’t forget that the criminal attack occurred forty-eight hours before Parliament met for a plenary session to sanction the presidential election results constitutionally. By this stage, Popular Unity already had the parliamentary votes to ratify the victory won in the election of September 4, so that the unconstitutional maneuver that consisted of a letter sent by the defeated presidential candidate, Jorge Alessandri, was forestalled.
Having lost all possibility of defeating Popular Unity legally, the conspirators went outside bourgeois law. What could the people do? We had to defend ourselves.
So the outward appearance of the bourgeoisie conducting a clean, democratic campaign does not fit the facts? Was there resistance against allowing you to assume the presidency?
Probably, if not on a personal level, certainly from the existing regime as a whole. It stands to reason that it should be so — you, as a Marxist, know that as well as I do, Régis.
The reactionaries defended to the last; they exhausted every possibility . . .
Not every possibility, no, because they are still active . . .
One of the leaders of your party, the Socialist Party, said to me recently: “If there isn’t treason, there’s confrontation.” My view is that if there is no confrontation, there will inevitably be treason. Do you think there will be a confrontation?
Confrontation is already an everyday fact of life, Régis — on all sides, in many different forms.
I was referring to a head-on decisive confrontation, a violent end to the current state of coexistence. A military uprising for example . . .
That will depend on them. If they start it, it will happen, but, in any case, we shall wait for them to start it. We are vigilant. But we are not mechanistic. The history of Chile has been punctuated by confrontations for many, many years. You must know the long list of massacres of workers and peasants under bourgeois rule.
What does one understand by confrontations? As long as there are contradictions in society, and these remain even while we are building socialism, confrontations will occur. Let us leave aside the basic antagonisms: they are settled by the class struggle.
And the class struggle is going to become keener now.
Clearly. As you will appreciate, once our constitutional reform is implemented, powerful interests inside and outside the country will suffer. Those people who are going to feel the effect of our land reform or the nationalization of the banks are going to want to react. How could there not be antagonism when our first principles are based on the essential fact of the class struggle? We know that the oligarchical groups, the plutocratic groups, the feudal groups will try to defend their privileges at all costs.