The authors of both books suggest that the Chilean military coup of September, 1973 against the Popular Unity Coalition (UP) headed by President Salvador Allende was a tragic but probably unavoidable outcome. The book edited by Paul Sweezy is a critique of the Popular Unity government from the left, and Robert Moss’s book is a critique from the right; but the former is of considerably more value than the latter for those who wish to understand the roots of the Chilean tragedy.
The Sweezy book consists of nine fairly short essays, eight of which were originally published in the Monthly Review and one in Ramparts magazine. The principal contributors are Paul Sweezy himself and James Petras; there are also articles by Andrew Zimbalist, Barbara Stallings, Betty Petras, and three unidentified correspondents. All were basically sympathetic to the goals of the Chilean transition to socialism, but critical of the political strategy adopted to realize these goals.
According to these writers, the fundamental mistake of the UP government was its failure to take advantage of its moment of maximum popularity and success: the municipal elections of April, 1971, when candidates identified with the Popular Unity polled over half the total votes. Had the government then acted to modify the institutions of the previous bourgeois governments—particularly the congress, judiciary, and military—and to replace them with structures more consonant with the social bases of the coalition, the coup might have been avoided (or if not, at least more successfully resisted). In his opening essay, written after the coup, Sweezy argues that the electorally defeated bourgeoisie could not allow the process underway to continue once their own interests were threatened. Allende, therefore, according to this argument, should have known that time was on the side of an opposition that would inevitably gain strength as he lost it. In one way or another, all the essays which follow Sweezy’s initial statement underline the consequences and potential dangers of Chile’s “peaceful transition to socialism,” so dependent on elections and so unable to control its powerful enemies, internal and external.
Despite the shared perspective of the contributors, there are threads of controversy that run through the book. Specific events and general trends are scrutinized in terms of the degree to which they advanced or inhibited popular mobilization and the class struggle; the authors debate the choices available to the government at given moments in terms of both Marxist theory and actual situations. Interesting as these political and theoretical debates may be, however, several of the essays lack sufficient background on the specific events that were unfolding in Chile. Thus, many readers will not be able to form a realistic idea of the complexity of the actual situation. The later essays, written at the end of the Popular Unity period and at the beginning of the military rule, are better in this respect. This is especially true for the opening essay by Sweezy, the article by James and Betty Petras (“Ballots into Bullets”), and the comprehensive treatment (“Showdown in Chile”) by Zimbalist and Stallings.
Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Chile presents a “left criticism” of the Popular Unity government in a readable, sophisticated, and responsible manner. Since this perspective was, in itself, an important ingredient of the Chilean experience under Allende, the book makes an important contribution to our understanding of recent Chilean history. Nevertheless, since the counter-arguments explaining the position of the government and the reasons for the choices actually taken are not adequately presented, the book is far more useful as a supplement to other readings than as a basic text in itself.
A well-reasoned analysis of the Allende government, written from the point of view of the opposition, would be an important contribution. Robert Moss’s book, unfortunately, does not provide such an analysis. A journalist associated with The Economist, Moss seems unable to decide whether to write a scholarly book or a political denunciation of everything connected with the Popular Unity. He builds no serious arguments and condemns far more than he explains. The problem is evident at the outset. In the Introduction, and at several points throughout the book, he professes to “ask” about the nature of the Allende government and the inevitability of the coup, but his answers are tangled in the questions themselves: “. . . was the action of the armed forces the desperate last resort of the opposition majority in a country which had seen the Marxists trample on their political rights and drag Chile into bankruptcy? Or was it possible that the September coup headed off a bloody and protracted civil war by destroying the bases for the Bolshevik-style insurrection . . .? This book provides answers. . .” (pp. i-ii). The answers, in fact, are hard to take seriously: When Moss sees the government moving with resolve, he decries the end of democracy, liberty, and justice (defined as the specific parliamentary system in Chile). When he detects the government moving slowly, he attributes the pace to inefficiency and inability to control. In the UP’s economic problems he sees evidence of the government’s quest for power without responsibility or commitment. When the people support the government, he judges that they are only dupes, “bought” by the UP’s manipulations. The opposition strikes, on the other hand, are judged the work of “tough, resourceful and independent men” (p. 146) (whom we now know were being subsidized by the CIA), and the resistence to Allende was a “grassroots” movement (p. 149) in defense of the country’s basic institutions. No consistent theoretical argument ties these condemnations and evaluations together.
While both books reviewed here represent the understandings of writers emotionally and politically close to the experiences about which they write, the Sweezy book succeeds in its critical purpose, while the Moss books does not. The absence of historical perspective, coupled with Moss’s enmity to the events he describes, constitute an unfortunate combination, and lead to a somewhat distorted presentation. For example, the role of the extreme left is exaggerated beyond what is justified by the actual balance of forces, while relatively little space is devoted to explaining the composition and dynamics of political forces in the UP coalition itself. In Moss’s treatment of the position of the military, his hostility to Popular Unity policies prevents him from dealing sufficiently seriously with the contradictions inherent in the role of those officers who cooperated with Allende’s government. Justifying the coup, the author writes as though all Chileans who opposed Allende also welcomed military rule in their country. Finally, the book ends with Moss’s refusal to make any predictions about Chile’s future. In his only reference to the current military government’s suppression of basic democratic freedoms in Chile, he states his hope that “Chile’s tragedy, resulting in the temporary death of democracy will not be repeated, but it must not be forgotten who was primarily responsible for it” (p. 205).
Since Moss’s goal is really to elaborate (and justify) the reasons for the overthrow of the Allende government, his lengthy and badly documented recounting of alleged sins, betrayals, and corruption add little to our understanding of that government. More profound analyses of the events leading to the tragedy of September, 1973 are clearly needed. Historical perspective will help future writers, but equally important are sympathetic attempts to understand why the Popular Unity government—however flawed—was for millions of Chileans their best hope.