Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 18, 2010

A Grin without a Cat

Filed under: socialism,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 6:13 pm

Speaking as an unrepentant Marxist, I don’t think I have ever seen a movie that has spoken more directly to my concerns than Chris Marker’s 1978 The Grin without a Cat, now available on Netflix. Another Marker film also spoke to these concerns as might be indicated by its title The Last Bolshevik, a study of Soviet film-maker Alexander Medvedkin who lived from 1900 to 1989. Like me, and like Marker, Medvedkin remained a revolutionary socialist till the very end—unrepentant, so to speak.

Marker was born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve in Neuilly-sur-Seine, Hauts-de-Seine, Île-de-France, a suburb of Paris in 1921. A life-long leftist, he fought in the French resistance during World War II. His movies have frequently been sympathetic treatments of socialist countries, including the 1961 Cuba Si!

The aforementioned grin is a reference made in part one of Marker’s 180 minute documentary to the disjunction between the masses and their self-selected vanguard, the guerrilla movements in Latin America in the 1960s. At first, the narrator refers to them as a “spear point without a spear” and then follows up with “a grin without a cat”, a reference to Lewis Carrol’s Cheshire Cat. Marker’s other passion, it should be mentioned, besides Marxism is the cat. From the wiki on Marker:

Chris Marker lives in Paris and does not grant interviews. When asked for a picture of himself, he usually offers a photograph of a cat instead. (Marker was represented in Agnes Varda’s 2008 documentary “The Beaches of Agnes” by a cartoon drawing of a cat, speaking in a technologically altered voice.) Marker’s own cat is named Guillaume-en-egypte.

Despite his commitment to revolutionary politics, Marker is careful not to editorialize in his movie. Instead he presents his interviews and carefully chosen stock footage (including some amazing shots of Czech partisans fighting against the Nazi occupiers at the end of WWII) in the form of a dialectic between the full-throated radicalism of the 1960s and the old left style Stalinism and social democracy that remained hegemonic in this period. It should be emphasized that the word Stalinism appears throughout the movie, as well as pointed references to its treacherous role in keeping the mass movement bottled up in bourgeois politics.

There are some eye-opening moments with a youthful Fidel Castro, who is the documentary’s main character in some respect, calling attention to the CP’s refusal to back the armed struggle. One Communist departed from the “peaceful road” strategy and formed a guerrilla foco in Venezuela. Today, Douglas Bravo, this 78 year old former Communist, now attacks Hugo Chavez from a rightist perspective cloaked in left rhetoric. Filmed in the jungle, a youthful Douglas Bravo appears discouraged, mostly out of a failure to connect with the masses in terms of the grin without a cat. Apparently, he has been consistent in marching out of step with the masses, even now.

The movie also takes a hard look at Che Guevara’s failure in Bolivia, providing a kind of ex post facto autopsy through the words of two key participants. One is a gloating Major Robert “Pappy” Shelton who is seen in his Pentagon offices telling Marker that Che’s big mistake was relying on the Communist Party.

This is a lead-in to the next interviewee: a truly unctuous Mario Monje Molina who was the Secretary-General of the Communist Party of Bolivia and a saboteur of the guerrilla movement. There is also a fascinating interview with Regis Debray, who was arrested in Bolivia for being part of Che’s network. Debray’s Revolution in the Revolution was a kind of handbook for rural guerrilla warfare that sadly reflected the orientation of Che himself. Indeed, it was the combination of this misguided strategy and the treachery of the Bolivian CP that dashed the hopes of a generation anxious to see “Two, Three, Many Vietnams”.

With the collapse of the guerrilla movement, attention shifted to Chile where Salvador Allende’s popular front was now seen as the new opportunity for socialism to prevail. In a fascinating interview with Allende, we hear him explaining the superiority of the Chilean project in comparison to rural guerrilla warfare experiments. Unlike the substitutionist guerrilla movement, the working class of Chile was struggling to emancipate itself in accord with Marxist theory.

Moments later, we see Allende speaking to a group of grumbling working class representatives about the need to impose a wage freeze. He cajoles them: Without a wage freeze, Chile would suffer inflation. He adds that the only way to win a pay hike was to improve productivity, an analysis in keeping, of course, with what you might hear from Allende’s bourgeois enemies. Not surprisingly, this indifference to working class demands would lead to his toppling.

There is much more that I could recapitulate from this spectacularly political movie, but would only urge you to rent it from Netflix as soon as you can. There is nothing like it. Also of interest from this package put together by the Icarus Film Distribution company is a 15 page essay by Chris Marker that exhibits a kind of mastery of Marxist politics that made this brilliant film possible. Even if you for some unfathomable reason decide not to get your hands on this masterpiece, I do urge you to read the essay here. This is a telling excerpt:

In May anyway the final whistle came quickly: with the first casualty. Not too serious for revolutionaries, but it’s a fact, the murder of Pierre Overney by a Renault watchman would bring everyone back to the real value of lives, things and words. On the workers’ front, the great wave finally met its dikes, a phenomenon summarised by former minister Edgar Pisani in one sentence, ‘a terrible connivance between the conservative apparatus of the CGT (the communist-led union) and the conservative apparatus of the government’. And a great disorder fell on everyone’s mind.

Strangely, the small clannish fights used to draw a kind of overdetermination from the fact they had developed in this fuzzy space of the imaginary revolution. Left to their own devices amidst a reassured country, they became weakly and purposeless. Historical Anarchy had died – heroically – in Spain. To refer to it now made no more sense than being a royalist, unless it became an ideological business, quite profitable at that. The Communist Party had missed every helping hand offered by History and started the long spin of a motorless airplane. French Maoism would remain a landmark in the history of teratology. The foolishness of morons is a plague, but statistically speaking we have to put up with it. What is fascinating is the foolishness of clever people and in this particular case, some of the cleverest.

Elsewhere, things were more violent, more difficult than in France, but the curve was the same. For having gleaned a few traces of these luminous and murky years, I tinkered with these films. They don’t claim to be any more than that: traces. Even the most megalomaniac, A Grin Without a Cat (originally four hours long, wisely reduced to three but without modifying the content, just shortening it, with a short monologue at the end), is in no way the chronicle of a decade. Its inevitable gaps would become unjustifiable. It revolves around a precise theme: what happens when a party, the CP, and a great power, the USSR, cease to embody the revolutionary hope, what looms up in their place and how the showdown is staged. The irony is that thirty years later, the question is irrelevant. Both have ceased to exist and the only chronicle is that of the unending rehearsal of a play which has never premiered.

8 Comments »

  1. Louis, could you explain the basis for your claim that Allende’s “indifference to working class demands would lead to his toppling”?

    Comment by Alejandro — June 19, 2010 @ 5:07 pm

  2. Marker’s film is amazing and not to be missed. I’d also recommend Patricio Guzman’s three part documentary, “The Battle of Chile”.

    I’d like to know the answer to Alejandro’s question too.

    Comment by Greg — June 19, 2010 @ 8:36 pm

  3. Louis, what do you make of David Walsh’s remarks on Marker?

    http://www.wsws.org/articles/2006/oct2006/vff2-o23.shtml

    [blockquote]The Case of the Grinning Cat will further damage the (overblown) reputation of French filmmaker Chris Marker. An inexplicably trivial work, it treats the appearance on walls, billboards and other odd places in Paris of a grinning yellow cat. The image appeared on anti-war demonstrations and other political events. What did it mean? Marker decided to find out.

    The film is not interesting except for another cat—the one, in passing, it lets out of the bag, i.e., its political perspective. Marker, as narrator, bitterly denounces the “Trotskyists” (meaning the centrists of the Ligue communiste révolutionnaire and Lutte ouvrière) for splitting the presidential vote in 2002 and bringing about the defeat of the Socialist Party’s Lionel Jospin. Marker fully identifies himself with the subsequent campaign to re-elect Jacques Chirac, the leading political representative of the French bourgeoisie. What a leftist![/blockquote]

    http://www.wsws.org/articles/2000/may2000/sff4-m30.shtml

    [blockquote]I found One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich by Chris Marker genuinely appalling and irresponsible. Marker is a “left” French filmmaker, something of a cult figure, much admired for his collage-like films. Here he takes up the life and death of Soviet or Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. Most of the footage is taken from two video shoots: of Tarkovsky on the set of Sacrifice (1986), his last film, and of the director on his deathbed, in 1986.

    Tarkovsky is an entirely legitimate subject for a film. He was an extraordinary artist, whose best efforts rank with the most compelling work done in the last half-century. But Marker is content to treat his subject entirely within the confines of a conventional, i.e., anticommunist, framework.

    We are told that Tarkovsky was a Russian mystic, that he felt closest to the basic elements of earth, water, air and fire, that his shots generally angle downward because his films are meant to imitate God’s view, and so forth. Dialogue from Stalker (1979) is cited, “They [the intellectuals] believe in nothing. The organ of faith has atrophied.” Of course, against the coarseness and vulgarity and stupidity of the Russian-Stalinist bureaucracy, a pantheistic and purified religious faith might appear attractive, more humane at least. But the reality, as surely Marker knows, is more complex than that.

    After all, one has merely to look at Tarkovsky’s films. Despite everything, the films he made in exile— Nostalgia (1983) and The Sacrifice—when he had the freedom to expound his own ideas, free from harassment and constraint, are without question his weakest, at times almost embarrassingly so. His “return to God and nature” conceptions turned out to be thin gruel indeed.

    The Soviet Union was not simply a monstrous police regime. It had a history. A revolution was carried out, on the basis of the noblest social ideals. That revolution was betrayed in the most cynical fashion. Terrible crimes were carried out in the name of “socialism.” But the Soviet population defended their country with immense sacrifices against Nazism. Many intellectuals, even those abused and persecuted, remained publicly loyal to the USSR. This was not simply spinelessness. For decades the worst possible fate was to be branded an “enemy of the Soviet Union.” There was something about the origins of the USSR and its social accomplishments that retained their attractive power for decades after the ideals of social equality had ceased to govern life there.

    Tarkovsky may have imagined that all this had nothing to do with him, but his films indicate otherwise. One does not want to pretend that Tarkovsky ever was or should have been a “loyal Soviet citizen.” But it’s impossible to view Ivan’s Childhood (1962) or The Mirror (1975) without being made aware of a far more contradictory response to Soviet history than Tarkovsky later cared to admit, or Marker seems to have taken into account. Tarkovsky’s life certainly suggests that opposition to Stalinism, if it was to be artistically fruitful in the long-run, had to come from the left, not the right.

    In any event, one would have thought that Marker might produce a critical work. Nothing of the sort. For me, this was a low point.[/blockquote]

    I’ve only seen Sans Soleil and La Jetée, but I thought they were both great.

    Comment by RNL — June 20, 2010 @ 4:06 pm

  4. Since I have not seen the movies that Walsh wrote about, I am in no position to comment. It is important, though, to realize that “Grin without a Cat”, which I reviewed, and “Case of the Grinning Cat” are two different flicks.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 20, 2010 @ 4:13 pm

  5. Off the subject of Chris Marker, but about a movie often praised here, “The Battle of Algiers”: Sat.’s London Guardian reported that the manager of the Algerian football (soccer) team had his players watch Gillo Pontecorvo’s film before going on to hold England to a tie on Friday.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — June 21, 2010 @ 1:19 pm

  6. The passage about Chile and the Popular Unity (Unidad Popular, UP) government in the present post and the passage you linked to in reply to my earlier comment give two quite different impressions. The passage in the present post mentions Allende’s alleged “indifference to working class demands” immediately following examples of his resistance to purely economic demands (higher wages). This gives the impression that you believe that had Allende (which I will take as a figurative way to refer to the Popular Unity government) supported workers’ economic demands, or done so more fully, the government would not have been deposed. You do not make any argument about why that would be the case, and I’m not clear that you believe it, considering its absence from the post you linked to. Nonetheless, it is worth discussing for two reasons:

    1) The idea that the Popular Unity government was “indifferent” to workers’ economic demands is incorrect. I do not doubt the authenticity of the quotations you cite (from the film reviewed), but they give an extremely unilateral impression. (If this is representative of what is quoted in this film, I would describe this as an extremely selective use of evidence.) Historian Peter Winn writes that, in 1971, the average increase in real wages was 30%, and fully 10% of Chile’s income was redistributed from capital to labor (Winn, Weavers of Revolution: The Yarur Workers and Chile’s Road to Socialism). This represents an enormous redistribution of income, as was clearly the UP’s aim. Policies including increases in the minimum wage, increases in the wages of public-sector workers, and a greatly improved bargaining position for workers (due to the sympathy of the government) were responsible. There were many instances when workers went on strike and the government “intervened” (appointed a receiver to administer) the struck company, creating a de-facto nationalization under shared worker-government management. Under these conditions, many owners accepted government buyouts “voluntarily” (fearing that otherwise the government could run the enterprise into the ground), but imagine what an incentive this gave other employers to avoid strikes by giving in to workers’ demands. In addition, the Popular Unity government undertook directly redistributive measures (e.g., daily rations of milk to families with children) that improved conditions for workers and the poor.

    2) The idea that the Popular Unity government was deposed because of a collapse in popular support is incorrect. (You may not have meant this, but someone reading your post could draw this conclusion.) It is incorrect in general and I know of no evidence showing a loss of support among workers, which was consistently the most solid sector of support for the government. (Election results throughout the Popular Unity period show a very strong relationship between class and voting behavior—the more working-class the area, the stronger the vote for the UP.) The idea that the Chilean population turned against the Popular Unity government is part of the mythology that has grown about the period, and of course has been pushed by right-wing apologists for the military coup. The opposition had staked its attempts to depose the government by “constitutional” means on the March 1973 congressional elections, expecting to gain a two-thirds majority and to be able to impeach Allende. Instead, the Popular Unity parties polled 43% of the vote, an increase over the vote for Allende in the 1970 presidential election (though less than the UP parties polled in 1971 municipal elections). After that, the opposition abandoned the “constitutional” road and moved decisively toward creating the conditions for a military coup. Since the Popular Unity government had not lost popular support, even in the midst of a major economic and political crisis, the opposition would not risk waiting for another chance to remove the government in the 1976 presidential elections (believing that, by then, the political and economic situation might have stabilized, and the Popular Unity would prevail).

    The post to which you linked contains almost nothing about workers’ economic demands, but rather focuses on the failure of the Popular Unity government to organize and arm the workers in preparation for coup attempts. This is much more plausibly the crux of the issue, but your treatment of it is very facile. “If organized and armed on a nation-wide basis,” you write, the cordones and other expressions of the ‘people’s power’ “could have successfully beaten back the coup.” It’s all well and good to say “arm the workers,” but how could this have been accomplished under the actual political conditions of Chile at the time (without provoking a coup and possible bloodbath before the workers were sufficiently armed, organized, and prepared to resist)? It may sound like good advice to say, “If you’re attacked, and you have a knife, you should pull it out and defend yourself.” But what if the attacker has a gun? What if the attacker already has a gun to your head and trying to pull a knife will probably result in your getting shot in the head? A more serious consideration of tactics would look at how you could have avoided the situation in which you were vulnerable to attack, or how you could prevent your attacker from pulling the gun or even having a gun in the first place.

    The Popular Unity government came into office as a minority government. Allende won 36% of the vote in the 1970 presidential election, barely defeating the right-wing Alessandri. Nobody believes that Allende would have prevailed had it not been a three-way race (had the bourgeois center and right been able to settle on a single candidate). In the absence of a major right-wing candidate, the Christian Democrat Frei won with over 56% of the vote in 1964. Allende came to office with a large part (probably the majority) of the politically active population ranged between uneasy about and decidedly opposed to the “Chilean road to socialism,” to say nothing of the sort of socialist revolution envisioned by the left wing of the Socialist Party, the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR), etc. I know of no evidence that this changed in the course of 1970-1973. The major change was that Chilean politics and society became far more polarized between left and right and “above” and “below,” with those in the “middle” politically, socially, and economically splitting and being drawn into one camp or the other.

    In a presidential election in which no candidate won an absolute majority, under Chile’s constitution, the election went to congress. There was a strong political tradition in Chile that members of congress would vote for the candidate with a plurality, regardless of their own political preferences or party affiliations. (In 1958, Allende, then a senator, came in second in a three-way race for president. No candidate got a majority, so the election went to the congress, and even Allende himself voted for Alessandri, the top vote-getter.) In the period between the election and the congressional vote in 1970, however, a possible back-room deal was brewing between the Christian Democrats in congress and the right. The Christian Democrats would break with tradition and vote for Alessandri, who would become president but resign after one day in office. This would open the way for the Frei, barred constitutionally from consecutive terms, to run again in a new election (head to head against Allende), which Frei was sure to win. The U.S. government attempted to bribe Christian Democratic senators to do just this. At the same time, right-wing military officers, assisted by the CIA, killed Commander-in-Chief Gen. Rene Schneider in a kidnap attempt which was to be blamed on the left and used as the pretext for a coup. After the murder of Schneider, the Christian Democrats backed off from the attempts to keep Allende from taking office. However, they did extract Allende’s agreement to a “Statute of Constitutional Guarantees” in exchange for their votes in congress. This set of constitutional amendments included provisions that the government could not create armed bodies apart from the armed forces or national police, could not appoint military officers other than graduates of the national military academies, and could not alter the size of the armed forces or national police. These were intended to maintain the monopoly of violence of the repressive institutions of the capitalist state. Had the Popular Unity government, after agreeing to these “guarantees,” attempted to create workers’ militias or something along those lines, it certainly could have been used as the pretext for the “constitutional” removal of Allende, or (that failing), for a coup legitimated on “constitutional” grounds.

    Like it or not, constitutional scruples were a very big part of Chilean political culture. For tactical reasons, the Popular Unity (and the Chilean left more broadly) could not just disregard the issue of constitutionality. This is not an issue of whether the UP should have adhered as a matter of principle to “bourgeois legality” (obviously not), but rather of what tactics could have worked under the circumstances. For the UP, being seen as unilaterally breaking with the constitutional order would have meant (and did mean) being outflanked politically. On the other hand, events that made the dominant classes and the right appear as the enemies of Chile’s ostensible democratic and legal traditions had the effect of weakening the opposition politically. This happened, for example, with the abortive coup attempt and murder of Schneider in 1970, which (temporarily) paralyzed the right and the putschist elements in the armed forces. Ultimately, on the eve of the coup, both the Supreme Court and the Chamber of Deputies would formally accuse the UP of a pattern of unconstitutional actions. The Chamber of Deputies’ resolution, in particular, prominently included the accusation of “creation and development of government-protected armed groups.” This accusation, despite its lack of foundation in reality, certainly functioned to legitimate the coup.

    Even had the Popular Unity government attempted to arm the cordones and other “popular” organizations, it is not at all clear that they “could have successfully beaten back the coup.” There is no evidence that I am aware of that the armed forces were internally divided, that the loyalties of the enlisted personnel were swaying dramatically, etc. Without such divisions, it is not at all a foregone conclusion that even armed workers (most with no prior military training or experience of combat) would be able to overcome a professional armed force. It seems to me that one of the great underestimated factors in revolutionary upheavals is the decomposition of the state’s repressive capacity. (Defeat in war, which shakes the legitimacy of state institutions and often breaks down the cohesion of the armed forces, has for this reason often been a precursor to revolutionary situations. Russia is obviously the archetypal example.) In the case of Venezuela now, which you compare to Chile in the Popular Unity period, Chavez’s military background and base of support among the lower officer corps have been quite crucial in preventing the armed forces from turning in a decisively reactionary direction.

    One alternative course, in 1970, would have been for Allende to reject the “Constitutional Guarantees,” at least the military ones. He could have publicly challenged the congress to adhere to Chile’s political traditions, in ratifying the choice of the plurality of the voters, or else to thereby expose the limits of Chilean “democracy.” Under these conditions, it’s not clear whether Allende’s election would have still been ratified, or whether the Christian Democrats (the swing voters in congress) would have reverted to a backroom deal to get Frei back into the presidential palace. (The left wing of Allende’s own Socialist Party criticized his acceptance of the “Constitutional Guarantees” at the time, though it’s not clear to me whether they were prepared that the election they had just “won” would then be lost as a result.) In the latter case, this could have been a maneuver for a future election or other future moves for political power, and certainly would have diminished the legitimacy of Chilean “constitutionality” in the eyes of many. (For some historical perspective, consider the effects of “stolen” elections in undermining the legitimacy of the PRI in Mexico.) Such a gambit, however, would have been contrary to Allende’s entire political character. He had been preparing for an electoral victory since 1952—it was his holy grail—and he was not going to give it up when it actually came to fruition. His decision not to risk that is, in my view, a more serious criticism of his political strategy, compared to the failure to attempt to raise a militia at the last moment, under life-and-death conditions, facing a modern, well-armed, and unified armed forces.

    There are several other things you say about Allende and the Popular Unity that are either wrong or require clarification:

    1) You mention than an acquaintance of Allende said he “identified with the values of the French Revolution and never once defended Marxist ideas in private conversations”—and that this indicates an inability to effectively wield state power. First, the focus on his private conversations is extremely odd, considering Allende’s long and well-documented career in public life. Second, there seem to be plenty of non-Marxists who are quite adept at political tactics and wielding state power. Third, however useful Marxist ideas may be for understanding of capitalist societies in general, even useful generalizations have limited value in any particular political situation. To navigate an extremely complex and delicate political situation, like that of Chile in the 1970s, requires a detailed understanding of the balance of social forces. You can’t just apply the right “Marxist” formula and be assured of victory. In this same context, you also oddly mention Allende’s friendship with an “Italian anarchist shoemaker” (since this individual is identified as his “earliest ideological influence,” this acquaintance was presumably during Allende’s youth). Is this seriously supposed to explain his later political career? I can’t imagine that much of a lingering anarchist influence was involved, considering that Allende’s entire political life was oriented to political-party and electoral politics. He served as a senator for 25 years! This seems to me a serious misinterpretation of his political personality.

    2) The formative period for Allende’s politics was the Popular Front government (1939-1942), in which, as you note, he served has health minister. You’re incorrect, however, in implying that the Popular Unity was just a re-creation of the Popular Front. The Popular Front was led by the “middle class” Radicals. The Popular Unity can be seen as the culmination of Allende’s long struggle (dating from no later than 1952) to reconstitute the Popular Front coalition (political left and center, representing the working class and “middle class”) in inverted form, with the “working-class” parties (Socialists and Communists) in the leading role. It was not successful on its own terms, in that the Radicals (which were part of the UP in 1970) had by then been eclipsed by the Christian Democrats as the main party of the middle class and political center. They split into pro-government and opposition factions in 1971, and by 1973 formed but a small fragment of the Popular Unity coalition.

    3) You say that Allende exhibited an “unwillingness … to confront big business within Chile’s borders.” Well, the Popular Unity government did not simply nationalize all industry. However, it is not at all correct that the confrontations with capital were only restricted to international capital. (The confrontation with international capital, especially the multinational mining companies was itself, mind you, no small thing. The UP extended the “Chileanization” (partial state ownership) of copper under the Christian Democrats to full nationalization, and largely did so without compensation, since it deducted the companies’ past “excess profits” from any compensation owed.) The Popular Unity dramatically extended the agrarian reform that had commenced under the Christian Democrats. (This was clearly a confrontation with “big business,” by any standard. Not only was this an expropriation of large agrarian capital, but the landed class was also strongly connected with top Chilean manufacturing, banking, and commercial companies. The owners and top executives of the latter were largely either large landowners themselves or were members of large landowning families. See Ratcliff and Zeitlin, Landlords and Capitalists: The Dominant Class of Chile.) The Popular Unity nationalized almost the whole banking sector and coal industry. As for manufacturing, by 1973 there were 165 state-owned industrial enterprises, most of them nationalized during 1971-1973, and 120 more under “intervention” (government receivership) (Loveman, Chile: The Legacy of Hispanic Capitalism). The UP actually focused nationalization on big business. It was small business that the UP took great pains to avoid alienating, though strikes and factory occupations at many smaller factories led to interventions.

    4) You say that Allende “relied almost exclusively on official state institutions such as parliament and the army.” First, Chile did not have a parliamentary system, so you obviously meant the congress. But the congress was opposition-controlled for the whole of the Popular Unity period, and the UP had great difficulty getting any legislation passed. It mostly relied on using existing state institutions (e.g., using the state development corporation (CORFO) to acquire stock in private companies, in order to nationalize private industrial enterprises and mines) and legislation (e.g., the Christian Democratic agrarian-reform law, laws permitting the government to “intervene” landed estates or industrial enterprises in cases of work stoppages or land or factory occupations, etc.). Second, the Popular Unity “relied” on the army in that it was counting on the armed forces remaining “apolitical,” and most of its maneuvers with respect to the armed forces should be understood as aiming to forestall the possibility of a coup d’etat. In this respect, it clearly relied on “constitutionalist” elements in the military high command. The episodes in which military figures were incorporated into the cabinet were meant to shore up its political stability after major crises, the first a nationwide trucking lockout and the second an attempted putsch. (These efforts to shore up the UP backfired dramatically.) It should be made clear, however, that the Popular Unity did not have the objective of politically mobilizing the armed forces nor did it count on the armed forces as a major base of support. In this respect, the contrast with Chavez, who attempted to come to power by coup and who does have a major base of support in the armed forces, is dramatic.

    Your overall political assessment of Allende, however, is correct on two critical points. First, he was, as you say, “torn between revolutionary and reformist impulses.” At times, it seems he genuinely aimed at a bloodless revolution. If one compares the Popular Unity government to, say, the FSLN, on the basis of their policies in office (and not their methods of achieving office, or the attire or facial hair of their main leaders), it’s difficult to see what makes the FSLN more “revolutionary.” (Your view of the comparison will depend on how revolutionary you think the FSLN was, or might have been.) On the other hand, Allende’s commitment to constitutional means (which, in my view, was not just a tactical position for him, but the main thrust of his political career and personality) penned him in to halfway measures—in particular, a semi-socialized economy in which the capitalists felt profoundly threatened but retained tremendous power over investment and employment. This was the core reason for the economic death-spiral of the Popular Unity’s last year (amplified, of course, by deliberate acts of disruption and sabotage). Second, Allende was certainly mistrustful of the workers’ and peasants’ rising that the UP victory had unleashed. Partly, this was due to the fear that this social upheaval would provoke a vicious reaction that the workers and peasants could not, at that late stage, be prepared to withstand. Partly, this was due to his commitment to a carefully modulated “revolution from above,” which was, once again, a product of an overall political orientation emphasizing political coalition-building and elite maneuvering over mass mobilization.

    Comment by Alejandro — June 24, 2010 @ 9:43 pm

  7. @Alejandro absolutely right on Allende. This documentary had an extremely unilateral view of him.

    Comment by Nate — May 4, 2011 @ 3:54 pm


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