Pablo Neruda, the great Chilean poet, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971 for "a poetry that with the action of an elemental force brings alive a continent's destiny and dreams". In his acceptance speech in Stockholm he cited Arthur Rimbaud, the wild teenage poetic genius of the Paris Commune of 1871: "In the dawn, armed with a burning patience, we shall enter the splendid Cities." Neruda declared that "my duties as a poet involve friendship not only with the rose and with symmetry, with exalted love and endless longing", but also a "taking sides" with the "organised masses of the people" in struggle against "the condemnation of centuries" and for "justice and dignity".
Neruda was not just speaking as a poet. In 1970 he had been appointed as the ambassador to France when Salvador Allende led a coalition of left parties to victory in a bitterly contested election in Chile. As a teenager, Allende had formed a close friendship with an anarchist shoemaker, Juan Demarchi, and their discussions, and shared reading, opened his political horizons. For the rest of his life Allende's politics remained more democratic, more pragmatic and more generous in the face of organisational and ideological diversity, than was, and still is, more usually the case on the left. But this was not only a matter of ideas. His work as a doctor rooted his politics in a concrete understanding of the day to day lives of ordinary Chileans.Neruda, who had first been the Communist Party's candidate for the Presidency, had campaigned for Allende's attempt to rally the left under a single banner insisting that "our people must be elevated to the life of human dignity that they deserve". To the horror of Chilean elites, Catholic intellectuals, American business and political interests Allende won the election.His victory speech promised a "second independence - economic independence" and he symbolically opened the doors of the Presidential Palace, La Moneda, to the people.
Allende was and remained committed to a democratic and non-violent path to a more just society. But from the beginning it was clear that he faced forces that didn't share these scruples. Before he was even sworn into office the American ambassador in Santiago reported to Henry Kissinger, a powerful figure in Richard Nixon's administration, that: "Once Allende comes to power we shall do all within our power to condemn Chile and the Chileans to utmost deprivation and poverty."
In office Allende, at first moving cautiously, began to make small but significant reforms. Wages were increased, children provided with milk, houses built, effective literacy programmes put in places, libraries developed in trade union offices and shanty towns, literary classics published and distributed and child care facilities and public laundries set up. Then the mines and banks were nationalised. Allende's share of the vote escalated dramatically in the April 1971 municipal elections.But demands for change were also escalating outside of the electoral arena and representative politics. There were rural and urban land occupations and then, in the same month as the municipal elections, workers seized control of a textile mill. Allende was rattled and insisted that "The masses cannot go beyond their leaders, because the leaders have an obligation to direct the process and not to leave it to be directed by the masses." In the end, unwilling to repress the occupation of the mill, he let it stand. In the next two years there were more than 500 factory occupations.
They, and the self-governing neighbourhoods in the shanty towns, became centres of increasingly confident popular power. Some commentators called this, in a phrase that carries a certain resonance in contemporary South Africa, "a radical third force".The backlash from elites in Chile and the US began to gather real intensity. At the same time Allende's government, and popular struggles in Chile, won increasing international support.Stevedores in Rotterdam and Marseille refused to unload any copper in protest at an attempt by American corporate power to boycott Chilean copper.In late 1972 Neruda returned to Chile from Paris.
In November he was honoured at the National Stadium and declared, "This land has passed from the hands of the glutted to the hands of the hungry." But by the end of that year it was clear that the democratic road to a more equal society was being blocked by the alliance of Chilean and American elites. Allende refused to arm the peasants, workers and shack dwellers who had been driving social change from below and from outside of the state. In December he refused an offer of Soviet protection in exchange for Chile becoming a client state of the Soviet Union on the Cuban model. When the coup that put an end to this experiment in democratic socialism came on 11 September 1973 it came with the tanks and jets of the Chilean army under the command of Augusto Pinochet and the full backing of the US state.Allende gave his final speech, a defiant speech, over the radio.
Then there was military music and, in Santiago, the sound of the air force attacking both the shack settlements in the hills and the Moneda Palace. The next morning Allende's body, wrapped in a Bolivian poncho, was carried out of the smoking ruins of the Presidential Palace which, Neruda noted, had "for centuries been the centre of the city's civil life". People started to disappear. Forty thousand were taken to the National Stadium where some were tortured and murdered. Homes were raided and books seized and burnt. When the soldiers come to desecrate Neruda's home he famously declared that "there's only one thing of danger for you here-poetry". They burnt his books in his garden. He died 12 days after Allende in circumstances that remain highly contested.Thousands of people came out for Neruda's funeral. Workers on the job stood to attention. A line from one of Neruda's poem's about the Spanish Civil War was taken up by the swirling crowd - "Come and see the blood in the streets". It became the last open demonstration in support of the deposed government. Elections and trade unions were suppressed, books, music and curricula were censored, the country was thrown open to American corporations and economic policy making shifted from the parliament in Santiago to the University of Chicago.Eduardo Galeano summed up the result of the coup that brought Pinochet to power and replaced democracy with military rule in a simple but enduring formula: "Business free as never before, people in jail as never before". Coups followed in other countries across Latin America. As Isobel Allende - a daughter of Salvador's cousin who became a fabulously successful novelist in exile - wrote in 1997 "soon half the continent's population was living in terror".
In 1983 a series of protests emerged from the shanty towns. Some raised photographs of Allende as their banner. They were savagely repressed by the military. But although Pinochet would hang on to power till 1990 these protests are now often seen as the beginning of the end of his brutal reign. The policies developed for Chile in Chicago, policies premised on the radical subordination of society to the market, would be exported to countries around the world, beginning in the global South, before they started to infect the North too. They continue to leave social and political catastrophe, catastrophe presented as hard economic rationality, in their wake.In the last pages of his autobiography, completed sometime between the coup and his death 12 days later, Neruda wrote that "Once the 30 pieces of silver had been exchanged, everything returned to normal." There have been moments when we could say the same. The difference for us is that those who took their pieces of silver in exchange for returning things to normal did not come from outside the struggle and they did not come in tanks. They came in the name of the struggle. They came as heroes. We all know their names. We shouldn't be surprised that patience is burning up on our streets.
* PITHOUSE teaches politics at Rhodes University.