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Workers Socialist Review

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

Written: 1981 / 82.
First Published: September 1982.
Source: Published by the Workers Socialist League.
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Workers Socialist Review
No. 2, September 1982

A war where workers could win nothing

Along with all the revolutionary left, the WSL campaigned with all its energy against Thatcher’s war in the South Atlantic, The aim of the war, we said, was to boost the prestige and position of British imperialism and the Tory government. For British workers, the main enemy was at home.

This campaign was, of course, our main concern. But Marxists aim not only to campaign but also to understand to see issues not only from the angle of our immediate activity, but within international politics. So we were concerned also with the debate on the Left about attitudes to Argentina’s war.

That we opposed Britain’s war did not, for Marxists, mean that we necessarily supported Argentina’s war. From the point of view of international working class action, a possible attitude was to denounce the war on both sides and to urge working class struggle to overthrow both governments, irrespective of the fact that in each country such struggle would contribute to defeat of that country in the war. For both working classes the main enemy was at home.

Such an attitude is called by Marxists revolutionary defeatist. The majority of the WSL National Committee concluded that it was the best attitude for this war.

A minority in the WSL NC argued, however, for a defencist position in Argentina. So did most of those considering themselves Trotskyists internationally.

The defencist position meant supporting Argentina in the war, while insisting on no confidence in Galtieri.

In this issue of WSR we present a brief statement of the WSL’s position; resolutions of TILC; background material, and articles arguing the rival points of view on Argentina’s war.

The articles by Trotsky which we reprint explain in more depth what Marxists mean by ‘defeatism’ and ‘defencism’ in wars, and the possible tactical forms of these principled positions.

The Falklands / Malvinas war was about rival claims to the islands. The Falklanders are, and for 150 years have been, a distinct community, with a distinct and separate territory, displacing no-one, oppressing no other community. Neither Britain nor Argentina has any valid claim over this community.

The rival governments fought for possession of the islands to boost their respective positions at home and to promote themselves as powers in the world (Britain) or in the region (Argentina).

The war was therefore reactionary on both sides.

For British socialists the main task was to campaign against Thatcher’s war. But Galtieri’s war was also reactionary.

Galtieri’s invasion did not liberate anyone from colonialism or imperialism. It did not lessen the burden of imperialist exploitation, or improve the conditions for the fight against it, for a single Argentine worker.

It embroiled the Argentine people in a war in which they could hope to win nothing of significance – a disastrous war in a false and reactionary cause.

The fact that the Argentine state is so much weaker than the British state – too weak to realise the imperialist-type aims for which it launched the war – could not modify our judgment of those aims and therefore of the war. Our concern is not the balance of forces between imperialist and non-imperialist bourgeoisies, but the independent mobilisation of the working class.

We do not fight the bourgeoisie’s wars. We fight our wars. We fight jointly with bourgeois forces when they fight for an issue – like national liberation – which we fight for anyway.

If the war had been about Argentina’s national rights, therefore, we would have supported Argentina. But it wasn’t.

Argentina’s claim to the islands

The sovereignty of the Falklands / Malvinas has been disputed since before 1833, when the British seized them from the Republic of Buenos Aires. In general territorial sovereignty should be an unimportant issue for socialists, who are concerned with issues of human liberation.

Sometimes – e.g. in the case of colonial occupation where people are ruled by an alien power – the struggle for human liberation involves the struggle for territorial sovereignty. In the Falklands / Malvinas dispute nothing of the kind was involved.

Today Argentine sovereignty is clearly against the wishes of those who inhabit the islands, who believe, almost certainly correctly, that Argentine sovereignty would lead to their greater oppression.

Hence there is no general reason why socialists should support Argentine sovereignty over the Falklands / Malvinas, and at present there is a specific reason why we should oppose it. Argentina’s claim to the Falklands / Malvinas should not be regarded as an anti-imperialist demand.


The WSL has therefore defended the right of the Falklanders to self-determination. The objections put forward to this are invalid.

First, it has been argued that the Falklanders are pro-imperialist. That is hardly surprising, since they see British imperialism as their only defence against Galtieri’s oppression. Our support for their rights to self-determination, however, does not involve support for its imposition by British military power.

There is nothing original about that. We support many people’s rights without supporting their imposition by capitalist military power.

Our demand in relation to the Falklanders involves arguing that it should be defended by the Argentine labour movement, which has for the most part so far maintained a reactionary chauvinist position on this question.

It has also been argued, alarmingly, that the small numbers of the Falklanders in some way devalue their rights. This argument implies that only large numbers of like-thinking people have rights – a view which has in the past led socialists to accept much oppression.

It has also been argued that the Falklands / Malvinas are too small to be ‘viable’ as an independent country. There is absolutely no reason at all to believe this. There is no reason political or economic why countries ‘need’ to be of a certain minimum size.

And there seems no reason at all to believe that the Falklanders’ right to self-determination would reduce the rights of anyone else.

So we should defend the Falklanders’ right to self-determination, but not its enforcement by imperialist military might, and demand support for this right by the Argentine labour movement.

The invasion and the war

Galtieri’s invasion was reactionary. This was because it was an attempt to deflect the mass opposition to the dictatorship, and because it imposed the dictatorship on the Falklanders.

It if was reactionary, socialists had to oppose it and demand the withdrawal of Argentine troops. It was a disastrous failure or the Argentine left that it did not in general do this, even though many analysed correctly the reasons for the invasion.

Some comrades argue that the sending of the task force changed this, and meant that it was wrong to continue to call for the withdrawal of the troops because that would have meant a victory for Thatcher.

This is a terrible argument. It means supporting an acknowledged evil to combat what is regarded as a greater evil (an imperialist victory). Anti-imperialism can only be weakened by the defence of reactionary, evil actions. Socialists should have maintained independent class politics, continuing the demand for the withdrawal of Argentine troops, and refusing to let the clamour of war drown their politics.

Those on the left who have argued for the defence of, or support for, Argentina in the war, have taken two distinct positions. One was that the struggle against Galtieri and the dictatorship should be suspended during the war and taken up again afterwards (this seems to have been the position of the Peronists and the Argentine PST) and another sought to combine the struggle against Thatcher and Galtieri (e.g. Politica Obrera) or to promote the struggle against the British military without any support for Galtieri.

The second position is a difficult one. In what way could a struggle against the military dictatorship be carried on alongside a struggle against the British military? What would our position be on the general strike called shortly before the invasion, or the mutinies which evidently took place in the Argentine army?

Also, it has been argued that a victory for Argentina would have intensified and assisted the struggle against the military dictatorship. This seems to be largely wishful thinking. It has been argued that the new regime is to the right of Galtieri and that proves the point. But that argument ignores the obvious loss of authority of the regime since the war.

An oppressed nation?

The argument on the left for supporting Argentina has been based on a description of it as an oppressed nation.

This has raised important theoretical points which, however, have little in our opinion to do with the point at issue.

Argentina cannot be considered either an imperialist country or a semi-colonial country. Such divisions are too crude to describe reality, and Argentina occupies an intermediate position.

The category sub-imperialist has been used to describe Argentina, and has some validity, though it is far from complete.

But the point is that a revolutionary position on any war cannot be decided independently of the origins and the content of the war.

It is the contention of many on the left that, regardless of the initial content of the dispute, the sending of the task force converted into a battle between imperialism and anti-imperialism.

For many reasons this is wrong. First, why not support Argentina in that case before there was a South Atlantic war?

Second, the British war aims were limited to regaining the Falklands / Malvinas – though of course they went very far in doing so, and will undoubtedly take advantage of the victory to strengthen their strategic position. But the war and defeat could have been avoided by Argentina withdrawing from an unambiguously reactionary action.

Yet the pro-Argentine comrades oppose them doing so. And seemingly on the grounds that the specifics of the dispute (the rights and wrongs of the occupation, the rights of the Falklanders) all became secondary compared with the struggle between two camps in the world.

This disastrous theory of two camps has led revolutionaries over and over again to suspend struggle against specific injustices and reaction in favour of critically supporting the (relatively) progressive against the reactionary ‘camp’ in the world. It has led revolutionaries variously to support the Vietnam Stalinists against Cambodian Stalinists, Iran’s reactionary regime against Iraq’s, General Jaruzelski against Solidarnosc, and the Soviet Army’s murderous invasion of Afghanistan, etc. etc.

An independent socialist vision of the world is submerged beneath a perceived need to support the lesser of today’s evils. This in the long run is the death of socialism. It means socialists will always be outmanoeuvred by those who pose as progressives but act as reactionaries.

In such a dispute socialists should surely put forward a view, utopian as it may sound in the short run, which corresponds to the logic of the necessary struggles of the oppressed workers of Argentina, Britain, and of the inhabitants of the Falklands / Malvinas, and meets their real needs, instead of supporting fake anti-imperialist demands and playing into the hands of reactionaries.

That would have meant (at least in the short run) being isolated – not the first time for revolutionary socialists! Better than in the long run being irrelevant.

It should be obvious that none of the above detracts from the cardinal importance of the fight to oppose Britain’s war. The WSL argued for the defeat of Britain – that means not defeat by the Argentine military, but defeat by mobilisation of massive opposition in Britain.

We should not underestimate the bad political and ideological consequences which the British action and victory have had in the British working class. We should redouble our right against chauvinism and militarism.

War and peace

Finally: socialists cannot lightly support war, given the destruction and death it causes. Sometimes violent means are the only way to fight for human liberties. In this case the violence arose in defence of something reactionary. Socialists had to be against war in this case – i.e. in favour of an Argentine retreat because the ‘gain’ (occupation of the Falklands) was not one worth defending from the point of view of socialists, or of the interests of the Argentine working class.

This position is characterised by some as pacifism, not revolutionary defeatism. That is perhaps due to the degeneration of revolutionary socialist traditions. Socialists are surely very reluctant non-pacifists. One of the main slogans of the Russian revolution, after all, was ‘peace’. We should not fail to use it because it has been so besmirched by Stalinists.

Workers Socialist Review Index (1981-84)

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