Tuesday, December 14, 2004

The Death of Salvador Allende

All this Pinochet getting arrested stuff has reminded me of a book I read a while ago on the overthrow of Allende. So I thought why not do a blog-post on it?

It's still commonly believed that Salvador Allende, President of Chile committed suicide during the coup de etat which put Pinochet and his military junta into power in September 1973. This however, is false - and it's based on the propaganda/lies circulated by the military Junta in the days after Allende's overthrow. Allende actually went down fighting in a gun battle with the fascist soldiers who stormed into the Palacio de la Monada (the Presidential Palace). Here's how Rojas Sandford describes the death of Allende:

Six or seven minutes past 2pm on September 11, 1973, an infiltration patrol of the San Bernado Infantry School commanded by Captain Garrido burst into the second floor of the Chilean Presidential Palace, Santiago's Palacio de La Moneda. Charging up the main staircase and covering themselves with spurts from their FAL machine guns, the patrol advanced to the entrance of the Salan Rojo, the state reception hall. Inside, through dense smoke coming from fires elsewhere in the building and from the explosion of tear gas bombs, grenades, and shells from Sherman tank cannons, the patrol captain saw a band of civilians braced to defend themselves with submachine guns. In a reflex action, Captain Garrido loosed a short burst from his weapon. One of his three bullets struck a civilian in the stomach. A soldier in Garrido's patrol imitated his commander, wounding the same man in the abdomen. As the man writhed on the floor in agony, Garrido suddenly realised who he was: Salvador Allende. " We shit on the President!" he shouted. There was more machine-gun fire from Garrido's patrol. Allende was riddled with bullets. As he slumped back dead, a second group of civilian defenders broke into the Salon Rojo from a side door. Their gunfire drove back Garrido and his patrol who fled down the main staircase to the safety of the first floor, which the rebel troops had occupied.

Some of the civilians returned to the Salon Rojo to see what could be done. Among them was Dr. Enrique Paris, a psychiatrist and President Allende's personal doctor. He leaned over the body, which showed the impact of at least six shots in the abdomen and lower stomach region. After taking Allende's pulse, he signaled that the President was dead.

Robinson Rojas Sandford, The Murder of Allende (Harper and Row, 1976).

42 men and women defended La Moneda for 5 hours until they were finally overcome. As Rojas Sandford says, 'this small group[of civilians] held off a seige of eight Sherman tanks... two recoilless 75mm. cannons mounted on jeeps, and two hundred infantry men from two Santiago regiments, and bombardment from a pair of Hawker Hunter fighter jets'.

When the rebels had taken the Palace they telephoned Pinochet, who told them not to let anyone see Allende's body. Military Intelligence then set about fabricating evidence of Allende's 'suicide'. Rojos Sandford explains how the 'suicide' was staged:

... the SIM [Servicio de Intelligencia Militar] men seated him [Allende] on the red velvet sofa against the wall... propped him up against the back of the sofa, placed in his hands the machine gun he had been using... and pressed the trigger just once. Allende's head split in two.... The scene was now set. Because the body was already stiff from rigor mortis, it had not been easy to arrange on the sofa; the SIM men had to use force to straighten the President's legs, leaving them wide apart to stabilize the body.

They then called in police detectives from Santiago's Homicide Squad. As Rojo Sandford says, the staged suicide was so unconvincing that any third-rate detective would see through it - but the Homicide Squad weren't interested in finding out who really killed Allende. They sympathised with the Generals. Had Allende really shot himself he would have slumped over on the sofa (especially so as the force from a bullet at close range from a machine gun would have been extremely powerful) - however, as Rojo Sandford describes, the detectives found Allende sitting up straight on the sofa with his feet resting firmly on the floor. For some reason the detectives did not find it strange that Allende's body had become rigid immediately after death.
Rojos Sandford goes on to list a number of other obvious inconsistencies in the Junta's story of Allende's 'suicide'.

OK, so the left loves martyred heroes - and I have to confess that Allende is a big hero of mine - but the manner of Allende's death really does impress me. They just don't make them like that any more do they (political leaders I mean)? Can you really see Blair or Chirac or Bush acting with that kind of personal courage and with that kind of conviction? (Allende didn't have to stay in La Moneda). Blair's very good at the tough guy act when he's talking about the War on Terror - you know, sticking out his chin, looking 'resolute' - but can you really see him picking up a machine gun and defending 10 Downing Street against an attack from two hundred soldiers? No, didn't think so.

Of course, Allende wasn't perfect - he committed great errors. Rojas Sandford is clear that Allende vascillated and hesitated in power - he saw the coup attempt coming, but didn't prepare his supporters for it. As Rojas Sandford says;

When the 'document' of the purported Plan Zeta [this was an account - fabricated by the Junta - of secret left-wing plotting] was later displayed by the rebels, it was rather suprising to read that the Chilean working classes "had assembled an irregular army of 100,000 men", "had infiltrated whole regiments", had arms enough to supply "several divisions" for a "self-coup" that would take place on September 19. On September 11 it was abundantly clear that there had been no such preparation, that the workers' forces were meagre, incoherent, and disorganised, and that the "infiltration" in the armed forces was less than one per cent.

In some ways, Allende did effectively commit suicide through his suicidal policy of preventing the workers from organising. However, despite these political faults, Allende remains a figure that the far-left should regard as a hero - a courageous man who wouldn't surrender, even when confonted by three military divisions, and who died fighting for the poor of Chile.

Sandford Rojos sums up Allende's (tragic) heroism:

Allende once said: "Let them know this. let them hear it very clearly. let it make a deep impression on them: I will defend this Chilean revolution and I will defend the Popular government. The people have given me this mandate; I have no alternative. Only by riddling me with bullets will they be able to end our will to accomplish the people's program."

So they riddled him with bullets.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Pinochet Under House Arrest

Good news. A Chilean judge has charged Pinochet 'over the kidnapping of nine dissidents and the killing of one dissident' and has ordered him to be held under house arrest. See here for more info.

The judge decided that Pinochet was fit to stand trial after watching a recording of an interview he did recently with a Miami TV station. Pinochet must be kicking himself that after several years of pretending to have gone a bit mental, he forgot to turn up to the TV station with a pair of pants on his head and pencils stuck up his nostrils - you know, the old Blackadder trick.

No doubt Mrs Thatcher will soon make a statement condemning the heartless treatment of this kindly old man (fresh from a teary phone call to her son - also in a spot of trouble with the law over a bit of coup-plotting).

Unfortunately it seems that the rulers of Chile have gone a bit soft on those suspected of criminal activities these days. Under Pinochet during the coup thousands were rounded up and held in Santiago's football stadium and many of them were brutally tortured and executed by the military. In the weeks after the coup people suspected of criminal activities against the state were paid a visit by the rather self-explanatory 'Caravan of Death' and were given a bit more than a slap on the wrist. Regretably, no 'Caravan of Death' will be rolling up to the General's front door. Instead, Pinochet will be 'suffering' in the luxurious surroundings of his expensive home, in the company of his family and of his various wealthy friends from Chile's social elite.

I couldn't resist cutting and pasting this gem from the BBC News website's 'Your comments' section. It's posted by 'Harry' from the UK. Not that I'm implying anything here.

Pinochet should not be tried; not because of his age but because he is responsible for saving Chile from communism and making it one of the most stable and prosperous countries in Latin America. If this is how patriots are to be treated, what will be anyone's incentive to stand up for their country's welfare in the future?
Harry, UK

Saturday, December 11, 2004


I'm steaming at the moment. I went to a conference this morning on 18th Century revolutions, (it was free so I thought I might as well) organised by York History Department and left half way through. It was dismal. Actually, I'm being unfair there - a lot of it was very interesting, but something really pissed me off. I knew beforehand that it wasn't going to be radical history and it was clear from the moment I arrived from the preponderance of yellow Pringle sweaters, side partings and white haired gents in tweed sports jackets amongst the delegates that the Centre for 18th Century Studies was not exactly a hotbed of leftism. However, despite all this, I was still completely taken aback by the response to one of my comments. I'm still concocting witty replies in my head - the things I should have said at the time, but didn't, because it's still winding me up. I think the Germans have a term for this kind of mental anguish after the event which translates as 'the inspiration of the stairs'. Probly.

The incident occured after I had sat through a paper on the Brabant Revolution in Belgium. It wasn't particularly interesting, but I thought I'd have a go at asking a question anyway, since I hadn't said anything about the previous papers on the French Revolution. I asked what the speaker could say about the class base of the Belgian Revolution - it seemed to me that while the driving force behind 1789 in France could be said to have been the sans cullottes and petit-bourgeoisie, the Belgian Revolution was very much a process of manouevring amongst social elites. A reasonable enough question you might have thought. The speaker didn't have to agree with the premises of the question and I suppose I might as well have been holding a big sign above my head saying 'Marxist!', but it didn't seem a particularly silly question. I distinctly remember the sight and sound of several sports jacket wearing historians in the audience rolling their eyes and sighing dramatically. The paper giver (a woman from Belgium) looked at me for a second as if I had just fallen out of a space-ship and then replied that 'Well, actually, elites always do intitiate and drive historical change in these situations' (or something similar) and proceeded to give me an account of how the French and Belgian revolutionary elites had merely sought to secure popular assent for their actions and that this was about as far as popular class involvement in history goes.

I didn't reply. I wish I did. I should have said to the paper giver and to the wise, tweedy head nodders in the audience that if you made the sweeping normative assertion that it was self-evident that elites intitiate and drive historical change in a seminar in the philosophy or political philosophy departments, you would at the very least be greeted with amazed incredulity and, possibly, you'd be laughed out of the room. I'm not annoyed so much that I was confronted with conservative history - but that the conservativeness of this history seemed unacknowledged. It was presented as common sense and as self-evident. How on earth academics can get away with such bold assertions containing implicit normative assumptions so large that you can see them a mile off is beyond me. Maybe 18th Century historians tend to be like that.

Not impressed.

Now, I'm off to cool down.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Ricky Gervais

I recently watched a dvd of Ricky Gervais's Politics stand up comedy show. I didn't really know what to make of it at the time - there was something I didn't like about it. Gervais is, of course, the guy who played David Brent in (and who also co-wrote) The Office. I really liked The Office and, like most people, found David Brent an extremely funny (and excruciatingly embarrassing) character. A lot of the comedy comes from Brent's social ineptness and his inability to conceal his rather nasty social prejudices - mostly because he tries far too hard to come across as a man with liberal views and ends up falling flat on his face. The Office includes jokes involving race and disability but the target of the comedy, the butt of the joke, is usually Brent himself - we laugh at Brent's barely concealed prejudices. We laugh at Brent's sexism, racism and the problem he has with disability.

There are outwardly similar kinds of jokes involving disabled people, for example, in Politics. It seems to me, however, that these jokes are a lot less benign. Gervais seems actually to be cracking jokes at the expense of disabled people (amongst other groups) in this stand up show. Gervais adopts a kind of David Brent persona on stage in order to make jokes on the borderline of acceptability (there's also a joke about the Holocaust as I remember), but the important thing is that he isn't really playing a character - he is appearing as Ricky Gervais - and the audience laughs not at some hapless, imbecilic, reactionary Brent character, but with Gervais. The person I watched the show with argued that Gervais is taking the piss out of reactionary views and that, as in The Office, the comedy is highly ironic. However, although I think that Gervais's style of delivery certainly comes across as ironic, I don't think that the comedic content of what he says really is fully tongue-in-cheek. I think it's clear that we are meant to find people in wheelchairs funny - not that we are meant to find people who make jokes about people in wheelchairs funny.

I found Gervais slimey and unpleasant. If Bernard Manning did Gervais's routine he'd be condemned, but Gervais can get away with it because he can fall back on our familiarity with the Brent persona. We can laugh at reactionary jokes but tell ourselves it's all right because its not really anything nasty - its all 'knowing irony'. But we're just fooling ourselves if we do that. It's clear that the jokes really are highly unpleasant.

Maybe I've over-reacted here. If anyone else has seen Gervais's stand up let me know what you think. Maybe I've got it all wrong.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

The Reproduction of Resistance Against Capital

" ... even a fully postmodernised First World will not lack young people whose temperament and values are genuinely left ones and embrace visions of radical social change repressed by the norms of business society. The dynamics of such commitment are derived not from the reading of the 'Marxist classics', but rather from the objective experience of a social reality and the way in which one isolated cause or issue, one specific form of injustice, cannot be fulfilled without drawing the entire web of interrelated social levels together into a totality, which then demands the invention of a politics of social transformation.... Whether the word Marxism disappears or not, therefore, in the erasure of the tapes of some new Dark Age, the thing itself will inevitably reappear."

Fredric Jameson, Late Marxism, 1990.

Jameson's reference to the possibility of a 'fully postmodernised First World' and the suggestion that Marxism could be on the verge of disappearance marks out this passage as, very much, a product of its time. In 1990 Western Academia was still struggling to emerge from the stanglehold (sickness/mental derrangement?) of Postmodernism and the future, indeed, looked black - a 'new Dark Age', for some, was a dangerously real possibility [actually, is 'real possibility' a non-sensical oxymoron? If so, I am of course just being ironic and postmoderny in order to be clever etc]. However, rather than Marxism, it is Postmodernism today, as far as I can see, which seems to be fast disappearing - surviving in anything other than a feeble form only in the darker corners of Western Academia (certain US universities spring to mind), oh.. and in Sociology Departments. Despite this certain datedness to the passage quoted above, I think the passage is still important. Jameson is right that the generation of resistance to, and rebellion against, capital is implicit within the workings of the capitalist system itself. It wasn't Marx who invented working class rebellion and the struggle against capital isn't created or realised by knowledge of socialist theory. This theory has to work on something already present and inherent in human experience of life in class-divided society. For as long as it exists, capitalism will constantly reproduce its own enemies. It will inevitably reproduce the possibility of its own destruction and the possibility of the realisation of socialism. Capitalism can never win a final victory.

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