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Workers Socialist Review

Magazine of the Workers Socialist League
Affiliated to the Trotskyist International Liaison Committee

Written: 1982.
First Published: September 1982.
Source: Published by the Workers Socialist League.
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Workers Socialist Review
No. 2, September 1982

Against neutrality: defend Argentina

WSL minority tendency

Many within the WSL disagree with the present majority position on the Falklands which is one of defeatism on both sides linked to demands for the withdrawal of Argentinian troops from the Falklands and self-determination for the islanders.

Unfortunately there seems to be a lack of clarity as to what defeatism on both sides actually means for our position on the war.

Contrary to the impression which may be given, to call for defeatism in Britain does not imply a call for the victory of the Argentine forces over British forces. We have to be absolutely honest and say that it means neutrality in the military conflict between Britain and Argentina. There has been agreement on the call for the defeat of the British forces but not by the Argentine forces.

What defeatism means

Defeatism means the defeat of your own ruling class by the working class. It means “the main enemy is at home”. It means: British workers and soldiers turn your guns on your own officers and ruling class because our own ruling class is an imperialist ruling class. That is a basic Marxist position that we hold in all wars at any time which are being waged by our own ruling class. The question is, what position do we hold for the other side in the war, in this case Argentina? If we hold, as we do, a revolutionary defeatist position for the Argentine working class, then we are saying: Both working classes defeat your own ruling class; the outcome of the war is irrelevant; a victory for one side would not be more progressive than the other. In other words, we are neutral in the military conflict between the two state powers, both in the final outcome and in particular battles or clashes. This is often a correct position to hold. We would always hold it in the case of a war between two imperialist powers. It would often be our position in the case of a war between non-imperialist powers – like Iran and Iraq. In the case of a war between a major imperialist power and a non-imperialist power, however, it can be fundamentally wrong. It even questions whether we would favour the defeat of the British forces by the Argentine forces if it happened.

Such a position of neutrality reflects in part the very different material conditions prevailing at present in Britain as against those facing the Argentine workers. In Britain of course there is no conscription, no danger of air strikes at our mainland, no enemy fleet cruising 12 miles off the coast threatening to attack any ship or aircraft which ventures out of port, and no overt austerity measures.

Conditions in Argentina

Conditions in Argentina are very different. The working class cannot escape from the fact that their country is under attack. The whole male population has been conscripted; and there is a foreign, imperialist navy offshore with guns and missiles trained on Argentine targets. The imperialist response to Galtieri’s adventure in invading the Falklands has in turn triggered a wave of anti-imperialist militancy. In the mass mobilisation on the streets can be seen the most advanced, class conscious elements in the Argentine workers’ movement, exploiting the opening in the repression to put forward the slogan “Malvinas yes – Galtieri no! ”

Effects of the war

It is in this context that every major current of Trotskyism, with the exception of the WSL, has concluded that the war creates conditions to raise the consciousness of the Argentine working class and develop the struggle against imperialism. The closer we get to Latin America, the more unanimous are political tendencies that a victory for Argentina would create better conditions for the struggle to oust Galtieri and the junta. Yet from England, the WSL majority tells them all that they are wrong.

Indeed, since the majority position suggests – at least implicitly – that the cause of the Argentine workers might be better served by a military victory of British imperialism than by an Argentine victory, it is worth looking a little more closely at this scenario. Would a defeat for Galtieri precipitate a resurgence of workers’ militancy in Argentina, a resumption of the mass action which pushed Galtieri into his initial invasion, and produce a heightened confidence among workers of their ability to topple the imperialist-backed junta which has so savagely repressed them?

This might be argued to be the case were it true that the predominant mood among the workers was hostility to the war. But all the signs are that the workers identify with the fight against British imperialism. They would regard a setback in that war as a setback for them. We have no reason to presume at present that under the blows of such a setback the working class – which had not been strong enough previously to topple the junta – will suddenly find renewed strength. Indeed a beaten and isolated Galtieri could even seek ways to utilise such a situation to rally “national unity” in a beleaguered Argentina, and implant the Malvinas diversion as a central obstacle to further moves of the working class.

Outside Argentina the masses of Latin America would witness a bloody setback inflicted upon a whole nation by imperialist armed force. We cannot precisely ‘quantify’ such a blow to the consciousness of the masses: but it would certainly shape the thinking and thus the actions of those in struggle against imperialist control.

The majority comrades have placed great score in the nature of the Argentine regime. But to stand for the defence of Argentina in the war does not imply, of course, support for the blood-drenched military junta. It means standing with an oppressed nation against an oppressor. The government of the day in the oppressed nation is an important issue which we have to address ourselves to, but it is secondary to the struggle against imperialism.

Trotsky’s very clear views on this in the cases of Brazil, China and Mexico have been quoted by every major Trotskyist grouping to illustrate the point. Naturally the majority comrades reply to this with the time honoured answer to all quotes – that they are “torn out of context”. As always the use of historical examples can provide no perfect parallels, but the point is does the central point being made have validity?

Repeatedly, on numerous conflicts Trotsky argues that it is perfectly possible to stand on the side of a reactionary regime when imperialism is on the other side. The similarities between the Falkland conflict and the Japanese attempt to conquer China can be debated, but what cannot be debated is that he argued for standing on the side of a mass murderer of communists. He polemicised against those who could not draw a correct line because they started from the nature of the Chiang Kai-Shek regime.

Having drawn this distinction, Trotsky goes further and connects this with the way revolutionaries intervene and fight for leadership in the mass movement.

In the midst

He says:

“Chiang Kai-Shek is the executioner of the Chinese workers and peasants. But today he is forced, despite himself, to struggle against Japan”. “(It is) the duty of all workers’ organisations of China to participate actively and in the front lines . . . without abandoning for a single moment their own programme and independent activity . . . To be able to replace him (Chiang) it is necessary to gain decisive influence among the proletariat and in the army, and to do this it is necessary, not to remain suspended in the air, but to place oneself in the midst of the struggle. We must win influence and prestige in the military struggle against the foreign invasion. [Trotsky uses the word ‘invasion’ because he is referring to an invasion, on Brazil he talks about ‘military conflict’] and in the political struggle against the weaknesses, the deficiencies, the internal betrayal”.

Whilst accepting all the differences between the Japanese invasion of China and the Falkland war, how does that measure up to what the WSL is saying to the Argentine working class, who have a long and proud history of struggle. We are saying that despite the fact that the war is being waged against British imperialism by the Junta, oppose the war. Campaign for the withdrawal of the troops who are locked in combat with Thatcher’s army. Black war supplies, campaign against the war effort.

Such a position, were we in Argentina, would completely separate us off from the entire working class not only of Argentina but of Latin America as a whole. Far from fighting for leadership in the anti-imperialist movement we would simply become known as those who opposed the anti-imperialist war against Britain.

The majority comrades tackle Trotsky’s views in several other ways. First, they question whether Argentina is in fact a non-imperialist power, and define it as “sub-imperialist”. Secondly, they say that Trotsky’s position would only apply in the case of an invasion of the Argentine mainland aimed at the conquest and military suppression of Argentina (something which is absolutely inconceivable). But these two positions are contradictory. The first backs up an often expressed view of the NC majority comrades that Argentina is a middle-ranking capitalist power little different to Britain. The second says that in the event of a war of conquest against Argentina it would be regarded as fundamentally different and Trotsky’s view would apply.

The NC majority say that they would support Argentina in a war against imperialism only if national liberation was involved. And national liberation is defined to mean only the struggle to remove or defend against direct imperialist rule through conquest. What the comrades have done is to define national liberation and war in such a way that they will never be called upon to defend Argentina.

But the facts are that Argentina is subject to national domination by imperialism. National rights are involved – the right of a non-imperialist nation to recover what it thinks is its property from imperialism, without having to face attack and discipline from the military force of imperialism. Argentina is a non-imperialist dependent state. And it is at war, in defence against imperialist attack.

The majority comrades argue at great length, and place great score, as to whether we have changed our position or not (although they would be better discussing whether we are right or wrong rather than if we have changed). There have certainly been mistakes since April 2nd by a majority of comrades in the leadership. The estimations of the war by the majority (not the majority as it now stands) have varied between treating it as a joke to a consistent underestimation of its significance. From then until the first bombing of Port Stanley airstrip, a majority view held that the most likely outcome would be military intimidation to back up diplomatic moves limiting military action to ‘skirmishes’. Pressure for this came from comrades who now form the majority.

A third strand of argument is to brand the anti-imperialist mobilisation of workers in Argentina – or even Latin America as a whole – as no more than “chauvinism”. This position yet again obliterates any distinction between the status of imperialist Britain and dependent, non-imperialist Argentina. And it ignores the very real contradictions within the mobilisation of the masses that has followed the escalation of the war. The hundreds of thousands of workers on the streets are denounced in one lump as “chauvinists” – thus dismissing any prospect of developing the anti-imperialist dynamic of this movement in the direction of the overthrow of the nearest element of imperialist control – the junta itself. To make calls for the arming of the workers, expropriation of imperialist holdings and overthrow of Galtieri a reality, it is necessary to find a point of connection with the most advanced workers. That connection is plain only from the standpoint of defending Argentina against imperialism – combined with the exposure and political struggle against Galtieri’s junta.

The position of the minority is consistent with the TILC resolution adopted at Easter, which said the following:

“While recognising that the present conflict is restricted to the Falklands issue, in the event of a full-scale war between Britain and Argentina we would be unequivocally for the defence of Argentina”.

(The majority comrades now invoke the first sentence to nullify the paragraph but since any war and any scale of military action which arises out of this conflict will be ostensibly “over the Falklands” it is obviously a false interpretation).

This paragraph is important, because although we may disagree now over what constitutes an all-out war, the paragraph clearly shows that the resolution saw a war between Britain and Argentina as something different to an inter-imperialist war. It recognised that a stage could arise when we would have to defend Argentina and made provisions for it.

Stage of development

If the nature and stage of development of Argentine capitalism and the decline of British imperialism as the comrades argue invalidates a comparison with Trotsky’s views (quoted above) now, then the same was the case on April 9th at the TILC meeting. If the view that Argentina and Britain are similar middle-ranking capitalist states is right now, it was right then. The view of course does not hold. Militarily there is no comparison. Argentina is economically dependent on imperialism, mainly US imperialism. Like most of Latin America, it is a producer of primary commodities, in its case grain and beef, for export. Argentine private industry is heavily dependent on foreign, mostly US, investment, and the state industries and services are heavily dependent on vast loans from foreign banks resulting in the current huge debts.

Loans to Argentina

The Telegraph City Comment of May 18th gave some interesting figures on recent Western bank loans to Latin American countries (which should be seen in relationship to GNP):

“Since the Falklands crisis, international banks have been taking a hard look at the extent of their involvement in loans not only to Argentina, but to the whole of Latin America, with the result that many have begun to regret their past generosity. The latest figures from the Bank for International Settlements make it easier to understand why. The bank, which monitors offshore lending by international banks, reveals that Latin America continued to attract the ‘lion’s share’ of new bank loans right up until the end of last year.
“In the fourth quarter of 1981, international banks lent an extra $17,000 million to developing countries. Of that, nearly $12,000 million went to Latin America. Mexico alone borrowed an additional $5,400 million while Brazil took $4,200 million worth of new loans. Argentina, though less avid for new money, borrowed an extra $1,300 million. The BIS figures also show that at the last count, banks had a total of $182,000 million out on loan to Latin America. Against that, deposits from the area, which are seen as the first line of defence in the event of payment problems, amounted to just $58,000 million”.

So, if the objection based on Argentine economic development is not valid, has the war reached the stage of an all-out war? It is certainly true that such a stage was never adequately defined at the TILC meeting. In debate, views were expressed that this stage would come in the event of an attack on the Argentine mainland. This was plainly inadequate, and has to be reassessed in the light of the unfolding of real events. A full-scale war involving the destruction of most of the Argentine navy and air force and much of its army could clearly take place without ever involving the Argentine mainland. It is a false distinction to hold a neutral position on a bloody war raging between Argentine state power and British imperialism in the South Atlantic and on the Falklands and be prepared to defend Argentina only in the event of air strikes on mainland bases – which would be a part of the same war.

Already there are many reports of British forces operating on the Argentine mainland, preparing military operations against bases and installations. Where would we stand on these? Would we defend Argentina against them whilst remaining neutral in battles with the ships which landed them there?

In the first stages, when the task force was dispatched, it was not at all clear that Thatcher would be prepared to launch a war if diplomatic efforts failed. The South Georgia operation was conducted without bloodshed and the officers invited to dinner afterwards. It changed with the bombing of Port Stanley airstrip, the sinking of the Belgrano and the Sheffield, the shooting down of aircraft and the extension of the total exclusion zone to cover the whole of the South Atlantic up to 12 miles off the Argentine coast, preventing Argentine ships from leaving port. At the same time the size of the task force was doubled and the number of troops at sea trebled. The decision had been taken to go to war.

Whatever assessment we had made of the previous period, and whether we had been right or wrong in our assessment of Thatcher’s intentions and the probable course of events, all became irrelevant. It was now in our opinion an undeclared war and should be treated as such. On that basis we proposed at the EC on May 9th to change our attitude to the war in line with the contingency agreed in the TILC resolution, and switch to a defence of Argentina position.

This does not alter our assessment of Galtieri’s motives in his invasion of the Falklands. It was to head off a confrontation with the powerful Argentine working class and therefore entirely reactionary. Galtieri’s anti-imperialism is phoney because he rests on imperialism. He wanted to invoke the strong anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist sentiment in the Argentine working class for his own ends. But he clearly miscalculated the response of British imperialism, which saw it as a threat to its authority and an opportunity to re-establish some of the past glory of British imperialism, and establish a position where the forces of British imperialism has a record of military intervention far beyond Ireland. Galtieri’s problem was that he could not stand against the British assault without bringing forward the Argentine working class and inflaming the strong and progressive anti-imperialist sentiments, something which could dig his grave at a later stage.

Nor does it alter the rights or wrongs of the Argentine claim of sovereignty rights over the Falklands. We cannot ignore the fact that the Falklands were taken by force from Argentina as part of Britain’s policy of colonial expansion. We recognise that they were used by Britain as a naval base to guard the passage from the Pacific to the Atlantic ocean, but if the settlers were a distinct and viable community and were asking for self-determination, we would support them. Geographical or historical arguments would not apply. But they are not asking for self-determination. They are militantly pro-imperialist and determined to stay that way. On top of this, they are a population, as was said in an earlier debate, the size of three streets in Islington, and declining all the time. A third of them are there simply because they are employed by Coalite Company, who run the place like a company encampment. Obviously their views and fears are a consideration and could be decisive under different conditions. But we cannot subordinate the world political situation to the Falkland settlers and give them an imperialist veto. To do so would ignore the class politics involved. The question of self determination of the islanders has equally become an irrelevant issue. We cannot allow the international class issues involved to be subordinated to 1,800 people who as far as can be seen could call in the fleet to throw the Argentinians out if they were given a choice.

It is the international struggle against imperialism which should come first for us now it has reached this stage. The war has changed the parameters of the situation we are dealing with. In other words, the international dimension becomes paramount. Britain is doing what the USA has been unable to do in any real war since the Vietnam war to impose its will on a non-imperialist power. It is indeed a war of imperialist authority. The main plank of Thatcher is that Britain is now upholding international law and order as US imperialism claimed in Vietnam and Korea. What Thatcher means is law and order as defined and interpreted by imperialism. The implications of this are that the outcome of the war will have a profound effect on the world political situation afterwards. A victory for Britain would increase the confidence of world imperialism in using military force, and would begin to establish the use of military force against non-imperialist nations as the norm. Whilst a defeat for Britain would deny the imperialists of such a boost and emphasise their inability to use force successfully.

Neither is it just a matter of British imperialism. US imperialism, which hesitated for weeks, came down on the side of Britain. Like Thatcher, Reagan would prefer a negotiated settlement on Britain’s terms forced on Argentina by military threats and intimidation. But since this is not possible, with the junta caught between British imperialism and the anti-imperialist sentiments of the powerful Argentine working class, Reagan was forced to openly state his position. The USA is now clearly backing Thatcher with considerable military aid. Fuel supplies for ships and in-flight refuelling is now readily available to the task force. Sophisticated radar cover is now being supplied to the extent of a specially launched ‘Big Bird’ spy satellite orbiting constantly over the South Atlantic. There is no doubt that an unlimited amount of combat and logistical equipment will be made available to Britain from the USA as and when it becomes necessary. (Only a persistent anti-war feeling at home has prevented Reagan from carrying out similar adventures on his own). To back this up they are also using the EEC as a pro-imperialist political block.

The escalating military conflict to war preparations put an end to Haig’s mediation and Reagan’s prevarication. Though their overall interests are by no means identical, the USA’s decision to back Britain was based on the assessment that this would best serve its world interests. The risk of severe disruption of the USA’s relationship with the South American states, through undermining the Rio Treaty, OAS, etc., were regarded by the US government as less damaging than weakening links with Western European NATO states and their common anti-USSR cold war policies.

For us to call for the withdrawal of the Argentine troops from the Falklands, which the majority of the comrades argue for, under these conditions is incredible, To do that now the war has started would hand Thatcher a massive victory on a plate, particularly if the invasion of the islands had started and a land war was taking place. (Neither is it parochial to say that such a demand for withdrawal if carried out would result in another Tory government with a massive majority since it would be an event of world significance).

For British Trotskyists to call for the withdrawal of Argentine troops is thus doubly unacceptable. But of course this does not mean that the issue is not a perfectly legitimate question for debate within the Argentine workers’ movement, as part of a struggle which should centre around the slogans “Defend Argentina: No Confidence in Galtieri”. The line of argument would then be obvious:

1) Argentina is under attack and must be defended against imperialism.

2) But who is best placed to defend Argentina? The Galtieri junta, hatchet men of imperialism, whose crazy diversionary adventure started a war over a side issue instead of over the expropriation of imperialist holdings? The Galtieri junta, who sent young conscripts into the invasion with orders not to shoot back, who still shrink from any break with imperialism; who keep thousands of militants in their prisons? Or the workers’ movement, organised in detachments to drive off the imperialist aggressors and seize their real bulwarks in Argentina – their factories, banks and land?

3) The workers have been placed under conscription – let the unions now organise the arming and training of their members in independent workers’ detachments. Let the rank and file soldiers organise their own committees, and elect officers in whom they have confidence to wage the struggle against imperialism! Down with the officer elite; down with the Galtieri junta!

4) Argentine workers have no interest in the armed occupation of the Falklands against the wishes of the population – most of whom are exploited workers. But in the present conditions it would be worse for the masses of Latin America as a whole if we were to concede a victory to armed imperialist aggression. A withdrawal of imperialist forces is the precondition for the Argentine workers’ movement to take up the issue of the rights of the Falkland islanders as part of the fight on every level for democratic rights and the overthrow of the Galtieri junta.

It was also argued that a victory of the Argentine forces would strengthen the junta and would therefore be negative. There are two points about this, Firstly, since the war is now a major world issue, and its outcome will affect the relationship of class forces on a world scale, the strengthening or weakening of the junta could not be a determining factor. But secondly, it would not necessarily strengthen the junta in the long or medium term. Whilst it is not true to say that Argentina is sub-imperialist, the junta does of course rest entirely on imperialism. Military juntas in non-imperialist countries are the stooges of imperialism. Like a foreman’s relationship to an employer, or a lieutenant’s relationship to the generals. Therefore if imperialism is weakened, as in the event of a British defeat by Argentina, the dependent military dictatorship must ultimately be weakened and Galtieri would face that situation under conditions where the Argentine working class would be definitely strengthened by the military victory,

Despite this debate about the implications of the call for defeatism in Argentina, we must not for one moment be deflected from our total involvement in anti-war work in Britain. For this, defeatism in Britain gives us the basis for the slogans we need to place at the front of our work: Down with Thatcher’s war! Withdraw the Fleet! Black war supplies! The main enemy is at home!

Workers Socialist Review Index (1981-84)

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