The Allende example looms large in the history of the Americas.
For those of us who seek a democratic road to socialism, we must grapple the experience.
I live and organize in the United States, but my family is from the Anglophone Caribbean. And for our part of the Americas, the most significant attempt at socialist construction came out of the tiny island of Grenada, which saw a popular socialist revolution against a brutal dictatorship in March 1979.
By October 1983, ten years after the coup against the Allende government, the experiment was over: FIRST imperialism tried to destabilize the economy, unlike in Chile they were not successful, but the paranoia and pressures the young government was put under led to division, political hardening, and fratricide.
And with the first sign of weakness, Washington invented a pretense for a full-scale invasion of an island of just 100,000 people.
By the end of 1983, hundreds of Grenadians and their allies were dead and the revolution’s primary leaders were killed or imprisoned. The memory of the Anglophone world’s only socialist revolution was suppressed or only brought up as a cautionary tale against radical change.
But it is important for us to understand what the US was so threatened by: the capitalist class in the United States is the great organizer of the current system of world capitalism. At times, like in the 1954 Guatemalan coup, they might act primarily in their own narrow interests, but throughout most of modern history, its interest is in the free flow of investments, and its chief threat wasn’t the rise of an alternative large capitalist power in the region like Brazil or Argentina, but in the rise of an alternative system — socialism.
Once imperialism meant national capitalisms using the military power of their national states; now we have a system of national states, under the leadership of the United States, overseeing the interests of an international economy in the interest of capital.
In this context, there’s no such thing as a progressive national bourgeoisie. Of course, national capitals can be coerced into providing growth, the raw material of social, material, and cultural progress for any government trying to administer a capitalist state in the interests of workers. Investment policies, with both carrots and sticks, can be used to achieve egalitarian objectives, profits can be taxed and transferred and so on.
But the idea that there is a core of loyal capitalist willing to stand up for national interests against international imperialism is a myth. From tiny Grenada to Chile, all capitalists want a government that will govern unapologetically in their interests and would rather the intervention of foreign capital in their interests than the democratic constraints of their compatriots.
Washington today, even more so than in 1973, is not omnipotent. It can crucially aid domestic capitalists, but it cannot control world events.
Decades of US war in Vietnam yielded a communist government and a unified country. Years of war in Iraq yielded a government more favorable to Iran than to the United States. Even today in Grenada, the international airport that the US insisted was a MIG fighter base for Soviet power projection and invaded to prevent, has been constructed at last and named after that country’s martyred socialist leader, Maurice Bishop.
The US gave full support to the Honduran coup during the Obama administration. But under the Biden administration it was forced to be much more careful with the coup in Bolivia. The unity of the people of the Americas, including the workers of the United States can do much to constrain the ability of imperialism to undermine the Left, even in the short term.
But there should be no mistake: Allende was more of a threat to US interests and the interests of global capitalism than any government that exists today in the Americas, with the exception, then, as now, of Cuba.
To honor Allende, Bishop, and the sacrifices of previous generations of revolutionaries, we need to construct a road not just to national independence and opposition to Washington, but to socialist construction and the remaking of the world in the interests of ordinary workers.
Bhaskar Sunkara is the founding editor of Jacobin, the president of the Nation magazine, and the author of The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality.