Brezhnev and Pinochet

Readers of this blog will have noticed that I’m very concerned with Pinochet, the former Chilean dicator, and very hostile to anyone who supported his regime or who now seeks to shield him from justice. Why should I be so concerned with one ex-dictator when there are dozens of others living in comfortable retirement, not to mention the numerous dictatorships that are still in place?

I was born in 1956 and a my political views were basically formed between 1968 and 1973. Against the background of the Cold War and Vietnam, I hoped for what would now be called a Third Way – peaceful progress towards social democracy and, ultimately, socialism. In that context, two beacons of hope were the ‘Prague Spring’ of 1968 and the election of the Allende government in Chile in 1970. The first provided hope that Communist governments would gradually move towards liberal democracy. The second seemed to be a demonstration that, regardless of your views about the best form of economic organisation (and I admit that Allende’s economic policies were unsound), democracy was the best way to push those views forward.

Both beacons were brutally snuffed out. The invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union (then ruled by Leonid Brezhnev) guaranteed another two decades of Cold War, and the repression of all forms of free thought. There were no mass executions, unlike Hungary in 1956, but the invasion finally discredited the Soviet Union for most Western leftists. The only significant exception was the French Communist party (PCF). Both the PCF and its philosophical supporters, most notably Louis Althusser, were permanently discredited (for me, anyway) by their stance.

The Pinochet coup of 1973 was bloodier and more brutal. Thousands were killed and ‘disappeared’, and torture was routine. Against the backdrop of the 20th century as a whole, this was a relatively minor event, but for a previously democratic country in the second half of the twentieth century, it seeemed unthinkable until it happened.

The Pinochet coup took place with the covert support of the US intelligence apparatus, and the government soon gained the overt support of three (overlapping) groups in the West. The first were advocates of realpolitik such as Henry Kissinger who viewed both the crushing of the Prague spring and the overthrow of Allende as sensible reassertions of control over their natural spheres of influence by hegemonic powers. The second were those, like Margaret Thatcher, who viewed the economic and social disorder of the 1970s as calling for the kind of authoritarian government that could impose the necessary discipline. The phrase ‘man on horseback’ was widely used at this time. The third were the ‘Chicago boys’, advocates of free-market policies whose advice was followed by Pinochet and who were willing, in return, to support his government. Over time, the second and third groups tended to merge, so that Thatcher is now better remembered for her free-market stance (to which she came only gradually) than for her lifelong authoritarianism.

My views on specific issues have, of course, evolved a lot since 1973. Nevertheless, I retain a visceral loathing for all those who supported either Brezhnev or Pinochet.