First Published: Autumn 1984.
Source: Published by the Workers Socialist League.
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A Marxist attitude to a war must start from an assessment of which classes are waging the war and for what objectives. On the basis of that assessment we determine our line not as supervisors of the historic process but as militant advocates of class struggle.
Where a war, even under bourgeois leadership, is about an issue like self-determination for an oppressed nation – an issue which is a necessary part of the liberation struggle of the working class – the working class should support the war while maintaining complete independence and fighting to overthrow the bourgeoisie.
Where wars under bourgeois leadership are about no such progressive cause, class-struggle politics demand a defeatist stance – i.e. denunciation of the war, continuation of the class struggle for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie while clearly accepting that this will make defeat more likely in the war.
Where a war between bourgeoisies has no progressive content on either side, we must fight for the defeat of both sides – i.e., against the war and for the defeat of both bourgeoisies by working class action.
In all cases we fight for working class fraternisation. We do not disrupt the international unity of the working class, setting one national section to slaughter another, casually out of deference to the right of the bourgeoisie to rule as it likes. Where a war has a progressive content, we fight for working class unity on the basis of support for the progressive demands of the progressive side.
As the 1920 Theses of the Comintern on the National and Colonial Question, a basic document of our movement, put it: “ . . . the entire policy of the Communist International on the national and colonial question must be based primarily on bringing together the proletariat and working classes of all nations and countries for the common revolutionary struggle for the overthrow of the landowners and the bourgeoisie. For only such united action will ensure victory over capitalism, without which it is impossible to abolish national oppression and inequality of rights.”2. Our enemy is at home
Britain’s war over the Falklands / Malvinas was designed only to preserve a relic of empire and shore up the prestige of British imperialism. A defeatist stand towards Britain’s war was therefore the no. 1 campaigning priority for Marxists in Britain.
Instead of assisting the Tories in their crisis by ‘patriotic’ support for the government, the British labour movement should have used the crisis to hasten Thatcher’s overthrow in the interests of the working class, and given all material and political support to the Argentine workers in the struggle for democratic and trade union rights and for the establishment of a genuine anti-imperialist workers’ government in Argentina.
We repudiate any legitimacy of British territorial claims in the Falklands or any legitimacy in related British claims to resources in Antarctica.3. Argentina’s war aims
But the pretext on which the Argentine junta embarked upon the invasion of the Falklands / Malvinas was equally contrived. In taking its action, the junta acted not against imperialism, but in a populist ploy designed to divert and unite the Argentine masses behind the Generals’ own repressive rule.
In doing so the Argentine dictators trampled upon the rights of the Falkland inhabitants, who in themselves oppress and threaten no-one and should have the right to decide their own future. Such action did nothing to build anti-imperialist consciousness in the Argentine working class, but rather sought to generate chauvinism and ‘national unity’. We did not support this action, and called for the withdrawal of Argentine troops.
In its seizure of the Falklands / Malvinas, designed to boost its position at home and in the region, the Argentine regime miscalculated about the British reaction, and the US response to the British reaction.
This miscalculation could not however make the seizure, or the war to maintain the seizure, progressive.
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.4. Reactionary on both sides
On both sides therefore the war was reactionary. The job of Marxists in both Britain and Argentina was to oppose the war, to counterpose international working-class unity, and to continue the class struggle for the overthrow of both the Tories and the military regime.5. Self-determination for Falklanders
Support for the right of the Falkland Islanders – a distinct historical, ethnic, linguistic, economic and geographic community 400 miles from Argentina – to determine their own future is axiomatic for Leninists in the given conditions, where that community exploited no other community, threatened no other community, and was not used as, or likely to be used as, a base for imperialist control of another community.
The Falklanders’ right to self-determination cannot be invalidated by their desire to adhere to the now-imperialist state that spawned the Falklands community. That desire to adhere to Britain would invalidate their right to self-determination only if adherence had direct imperialist / colonialist consequences for Argentina or some other country, whose right to resist those consequences would (because of their size, etc.) outweigh the rights of the islanders. Only then would the ‘pro-imperialist’ views of the islanders lead to them playing an imperialist role. Nothing like that was actually involved. The agency for imperialist domination in Argentina is the Argentine state, not the islands or any base on the islands.
To use a definition of the islanders as ‘pro-imperialist’ against their right to self-determination is to introduce inappropriate political categories and criteria, different from those which properly apply. The Falkland Islanders are British. That is what determines their attitudes, not any pro-imperialist views they may have. The WSL is not in favour of the subjugation of a population because it has such views, or because of their origins. The ethnic tidying-up of the globe is no part of the international socialist revolution.
Support for the Falklanders’ rights plainly does not necessarily mean support for military action to enforce those rights. In the actual situation, with Britain an imperialist power, we rejected and opposed the British military action. We look to the international working class, and especially the Argentine labour movement, to secure the Falklanders’ rights.
Such a consistent democratic policy is the only basis for international working class unity, and specifically for the unity of the British and Argentine working class (which had to be our central concern) in this dispute.6. ‘Against Britain’ does not mean ‘for Argentina’
The WSL conducted itself as an internationalist and revolutionary proletarian organisation during the British / Argentine war. We raised a variant of the famous slogan of Liebknecht and Luxemburg, ‘The enemy is at home’, and called on the working class to actively hinder the British ruling class’s prosecution of the war by industrial action. We conducted internationalist working class propaganda against the social-chauvinist Labour leaders, while attempting to maintain a dialogue with the pacifistic Labour Left (that is, with those in the working class who listen to the Left leaders) on the question.
It is no necessary part of proletarian internationalist opposition to the war of an imperialist government to side with their opponents. Our response to the fact that it was for the British ruling class a war for authority and prestige was our defeatism; positive support for Argentina could, for communists, only be grounded in positive working-class reasons for such support.
Marxists reject the primitive rebels’ approach that puts a plus everywhere that the bourgeoisie puts a minus. We must judge events from an independent working class viewpoint.
We side with our ruling-class enemies in particular conflicts if the struggle serves our politics – e.g. in a national liberation struggle, even under the leadership of a Chiang Kai-Shek.
But in no way could the policy of the Argentine proletariat be deduced as a mere negative imprint of the policy of the British bourgeoisie.
The tendency justifies the pro-Argentine position with the view that “a victory [for Argentina] would quite likely mean the downfall of Thatcher . . . [And] the British have a far more important international role [than Argentina] as a primary carrier and protector of imperialism. This means that the nature of the British regime is a question of immediate international importance . . . ” (second tendency document, p. 16); conversely, “ [Argentine] withdrawal . . . would result in another Tory government with a massive majority . . . it would be an event of world significance . . . ” (first tendency document, WSR 2, p. 29).
The idea here that Argentine workers’ policy should be decided by what is worst for the British bourgeoisie – that the British revolution has priority, and the Argentine revolution should be subordinated to it – is British nationalist and utterly to be rejected as a basis for determining proletarian politics in Argentina.7. Argentina is not a semi-colony
Argentina is far more developed than most non-imperialist countries; it is a fully bourgeois state; and it possesses political independence. It also occupies a subordinate rank within the imperialist world economy. This subordination, however, in no way gives any progressive character to the Argentine bourgeoisie.
The Argentine bourgeoisie is not a progressive force, but the major agency for imperialist domination of the Argentine working class and an assistant for imperialist domination throughout Latin America. It has moreover its own predatory ambitions. For the Argentine working class it is ‘the main enemy at home’. Quite apart from its foreign connections, it is the class that directly exploits them.
We reject as un-Marxist assessments of Argentina’s situation such as this:
“Argentina is economically, militarily and politically dominated by imperialism – not by its own national bourgeoisie – but in particular by US interests. The whole basis of its economy is subject to the international market over which Argentina has no influence, let alone control and dominance” (second tendency document, page 2).
We reject the counterposition of the Argentine bourgeoisie to imperialism, and the measuring of Argentina’s situation by comparison with a situation where the country would escape the international market (which in a capitalist world it can never do).
Every country is more or less dominated by the world economy. No country has control over it – now not even the US colossus which was supreme after World War Two. This situation cannot be changed by war between the weaker bourgeoisies and the stronger. Not such wars, but the international workers’ revolution, can change it.
The communist answer to colonial, semi- colonial and military domination is national liberation struggle; to the domination of the weaker by the strong in the world market (as to the domination of the weak by the strong, and the pauperisation of particular regions, within capitalist nations) our answer is the proletarian revolution.
We reject the notion of an anti-imperialist united front for Argentina (a version of the bloc of classes central to Menshevism and then Stalinism, motivated on the grounds that the Argentine bourgeoisie is an oppressed class in relation to imperialism). We reject the notion that the Argentine bourgeoisie can play any progressive role either within Argentina, where it is our mortal class enemy, or against imperialism, into which it is completely integrated.8. Military bases?
In the war over the (maybe strategically important) Falkland Islands there was no conflict over military bases of a character to give socialists the option or duty to favour one of the contestants.
Argentina and Britain are in the same imperialist camp. Britain was literally within months of scrapping the naval apparatus that made the re-invasion of the Falklands possible. (But because of the internal crisis in Argentina the junta could not wait).
On the other hand, the Argentine junta had been negotiating with the USA, South Africa, and Britain to set up a South Atlantic Treaty Organisation to police the region (as Argentina helped to police El Salvador by sending troops). The expert commentators are largely agreed that this would have led to US bases on the Falklands.
That is, had Argentina got hold of the Falklands without falling out with US imperialism, it would have speeded up the work of replacing the decrepit and militarily insignificant British imperialist presence with a military presence of the dominant imperialist power.
The Falklands are maybe strategically important; but neither side in the war would have taken them away from imperialism. Argentina is part of the world imperialist system; its war with Britain did not place it outside that system.9. Fortress Falklands
We condemn the Fortress Falklands policy and call for British military withdrawal. But we deny that the present British military base there retrospectively justifies Galtieri’s war. It is conceivable that the British forces on the Falklands could be used against revolution in South America. It is much more certain that the Argentine army will be used against the revolutionary movements of the Argentine working class; that at the time of the war it was helping to prop up the military regime in Bolivia; and that its forces have been used against revolutionaries in Central America.10. The theory of ‘enclaves’
We reject the notion (point 5 of the September 1982 resolution) that imperialism rests on a “system of enclaves . . . in strategic places around the globe.”
Mercantile capitalist ‘imperialism’, in the 16th-18th centuries, did indeed in many places rest on a system of enclaves. Modern capitalist imperialism in China in the early part of the 20th century also utilised such a system.
But today, imperialism operates overwhelmingly through economic mechanisms (backed up, of course, sometimes, by military intervention). Residual mini-colonies like the Falklands – and various other tiny British, French and Spanish colonies – have no strategic role for imperialism. They are essentially anachronistic loose ends of the period of European settler expansion over the globe.11. Natural resources
There is no sense in which the conflict had an economic anti-imperialist dimension. British property in Argentina, not to speak of the property of other imperialist powers, was left alone during the war. The Argentine state did not even propose to take the Falkland Islands Company from Coalite.
Better Argentine claims on Antarctica from the Falklands would most likely have led to US exploitation of the Antarctic, with Argentina as a conduit. That is the concrete meaning of the subordinate position of Argentina vis-a-vis the US and imperialism.
Conversely, one of the major reasons why Britain had been trying to give the Falklands to Argentina is that a stable political settlement is a precondition for the viability of the big investments necessary for the capitalist exploitation of the area’s resources.
The exploitation would have to be joint exploitation, on one set of terms or another. The war was not about whether the resources should belong to imperialism or not.
The Argentine bourgeoisie is not counterposed to imperialism. And imperialism cannot be identified solely with Britain (conversely, anti-imperialism cannot necessarily be identified with an anti-British stance). The British-Argentine war was a war within the network of imperialism and its clients.
The Argentine regime went to war, not for anti-imperialist reasons, but to strengthen its political position at home. They did not wait to win the Falklands by negotiation because of their domestic crisis. And thus they aborted the process of reaching agreement with Britain.12. ‘World balance of forces’
The Argentine working class should never subordinate its own class struggle to estimates of the ‘international balance of forces’ between different bourgeoisies. The view that “whatever the implications of that for the Argentinian or British proletariat, we have to base our position on the implications for the international struggle against imperialism first” (second tendency document, p.7), is anti-Marxist.
The assessment according to which British victory was a major blow for imperialism is incomplete. The British bourgeoisie certainly was strengthened politically and in its prestige by victory. But these gains may well prove shallow and temporary (indeed, the continued class struggle has already proved them shallow and temporary), and the British bourgeoisie has gained nothing material – like new military strength, new spheres of influence or new possessions.
The Argentine regime, on the other hand, has certainly been weakened by defeat. The result is a blow against imperialist and capitalist control in Latin America.
Workers in each country can act as internationalists only by fighting their own bourgeoisies, not by acting as makeweights for international bloc politics. For Argentine socialists to support their rulers’ predatory war on the basis of the estimate that the British bourgeoisie’s predatory war was worse, would violate that principle.13. Class politics vs. bloc politics
We emphatically reject the notion that the socialist working class can orientate in world politics, and particularly in relation to conflicts among politically independent capitalist states like Britain and Argentina, by constructing a view of the world in terms of two camps, modelled on the division of the world between the degenerated and deformed workers’ states and the capitalist states: “We have to determine our position according to the basic class camps, not on conjunctural events . . . the class camp into which Argentina fits in a war against imperialism . . . ” (second tendency document, p.4).
Between the USSR and similar states, and the capitalist states, there is a basic historical class distinction, despite the savage anti working class rule of the totalitarian bureaucratic elites. No such gap exists between capitalist states.
The bourgeois foreign policy of the rulers of Argentina, even when it is expressed in acts of war, can in no sense change their class camp. Even should the bourgeoisie of such a state be in alliance with a healthy workers’ state, the task of overthrowing the bourgeoisie would be the central task of the proletariat in the capitalist state – a task never to be subordinated to international diplomatic, military, or balance-of-forces considerations.
This was a central teaching of the Communist International, and it was not formally repudiated even by the Stalinists until 1935. Thereafter the notion that bourgeois forces which allied with the USSR thereby crossed the historic class divide and joined the camp of progress was the ideological basis of Stalinism to legitimise policies of class betrayal and popular frontism.
We reject as un-Marxist, and brand as ‘international popular frontism’, the view that the Argentine bourgeoisie and their state became part of the ‘class camp’ of the international working class because of their conflict with Britain or during their war with Britain for possession of the Falkland Islands.14. The regime and imperialism
We reject the notion (implicit in point 7 of the September 1982 resolution and explicit elsewhere) that military dictatorships in the Third World are simply the creatures of imperialism: they are strengthened when imperialism is strengthened, weakened when imperialism is weakened.
Military dictatorships are as common in Third World countries which are relatively alienated from the big capitalist powers – Libya, Algeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, Syria, etc. – as in those closely linked to the big capitalist powers (Chile, El Salvador, Nigeria, etc.).
The political regime is fundamentally a product of internal class relations. Frequently, of course, imperialist powers do intervene to prop up or install dictatorships when that suits their purpose. But dictatorial regimes in the Third World are quite capable of pursuing policies hostile to the big capitalist powers without thereby becoming progressive or unleashing a progressive ‘process’. Iran is a clear example.15. The politics of wishful thinking
Support for Argentina’s chauvinist war could not be justified on the basis that it could be the first stage in a development towards militant anti-imperialist struggle. Nor could the war be defined as anti-imperialist by reading an assessment backwards from the scenario of a hoped-for anti-imperialist development.
The scenarios lack the first link: a real national liberation content to the war. A Marxist policy must be based on the realities of the actual war, not on hypothetical speculations or wishful thinking about strategic outcomes.
Argentine workers had no interest in the armed occupation of the Falklands against the wishes of the population; they should have pursued the class struggle regardless of the effects of such struggle on their rulers’ ability to maintain the occupation; and it was none of their concern to protect the Argentine bourgeois state against the humiliation it would suffer from being unable to maintain the occupation. These points should have been the basis of Marxist policy in Argentina.
The tactical ways of expressing this principled position could of course be very flexible (following the method according to which Trotskyists developed the ‘proletarian military policy’ as a tactical expression of the defeatist policy in World War 2).
It would be the job of Marxists in Argentina to seek to develop the genuine anti-imperialist elements in the confused nationalist reaction of Argentine workers, with demands such as arming of the workers, expropriation of imperialist property, and seizure of the factories. While making their own views on the war clear, they should have sought to develop common class actions with workers who confusedly saw Argentina’s war as ‘anti-imperialist’ but wanted to go further in anti-imperialism.16. A change of line?
A change in our fundamental attitude to the war could only be justified by a change in the fundamental political content of the war – i.e., so that it was no longer a war restricted to the Falklands / Malvinas issue. If Britain’s objectives had shifted so that the war became fundamentally one about an attempt by Britain to make Argentina a colony or a semi-colony, then Marxists should have sided with Argentina’s national independence. But that did not happen. It was always very unlikely that it would happen.17. Trotskyism and the war
The great majority of would-be Trotskyists world-wide took an Argentine nationalist position on the conflict.
The Morenists – the biggest would-be Trotskyist organisation in Argentina itself – called for national unity in the war, and demanded that the trade unions set up recruiting offices for Galtieri’s army.
They themselves summarise their position as follows: “To beat imperialism, let us strike in a united way. The war must be won. The socialists, who at no moment have hidden and will not hide their irreducible opposition to the military and bosses’ regime, are the fervent advocates of the participation in the framework of this national anti-imperialist mobilisation of all sectors, in or out of uniform, workers or bosses, on only one condition: that they should be to defeat the aggressor and to mobilise the people for that end. That is why the socialists call on the CGT, the CNT (the unions), the Multipartidaria (the bourgeois opposition), all political parties and all sectors who are in agreement to resolutely confront the aggressors, to push forward all the mobilisations and actions possible so that the Argentine people can strike with one fist and smash the aggressor.” (From their pamphlet, ‘Malouines, les revolutionnaires et la guerre’, p. 9. See the same source for the demand for army recruiting offices.)
Politica Obrera – the second would-be Trotskyist organisation in Argentina – was more restrained, but also supported the mini-colonial war and called for an ‘anti-imperialist united front’ (supposed to include workers and the middle class, but not the big bourgeoisie).
The SWP-USA applauded the speech of Argentine foreign minister Costa Mendes to the Non-Aligned Conference, and reprinted it.
The Mandel and Lambertist currents were more circumspect (the French and West German Mandelite organisations indeed initially took an internationalist position), but still sided with Galtieri’s war. The whole USFI press, both SWP-USA and Mandelite, carried an article on Argentina’s relation with imperialism which reproduced the crudest notions of middle-class nationalist ‘Third Worldism’ (‘Argentina – a semi-colonial economy’, by Will Reissner, Intercontinental Press, 3 May 1982).
A similar position to that we took during the war was taken – for varying reasons – only by some groups separate from the Trotskyist mainstream: Lutte Ouvriere, the SWP (Britain) and the RWP Sri Lanka; and by the non-Trotskyist, but important, Workers’ Party of Brazil.
This experience sheds further light on the politically degenerate condition of would-be Trotskyism, and the need for ideological regeneration.
The roots of the problem go back to the political crisis which shook the Trotskyist movement in the late 1940s.
In that period the Trotskyist movement declined drastically. (The French section, for example, which was central, suffered an almost complete halt in activity in summer 1948, and by 1952 was only 150 strong, probably less than one-tenth of its peak numbers.) At the same time, gigantic revolutionary events unfolded on a world scale.
Striving to understand this, the leaders of the movement essentially lost faith in the centrality of Trotskyism and the working class to revolutionary politics. In the aftermath of Tito’s surprise ‘break’ with Stalin and populist measures designed to rally mass support against any Kremlin moves to oppose him, and in the midst of the drive to power by Mao’s Stalinist forces in China, Pablo and the Fourth International leaders increasingly looked to some ‘objective process’ which would repeat such political developments and take them further.
The outbreak of the Korean war and the conviction that World War Three was imminent lent fuel to their fire, and the schema of the ‘War-Revolution’ which would automatically line up the forces of Stalinism in the ‘camp’ of the revolution made its appearance.
The independent role of the working class and Trotskyists was submerged in a conception of global ‘class camps’ in which the Stalinist bureaucracy, petty bourgeois leaders and sections of reformism were included in the ‘proletarian’ class camp, in which the Trotskyists merely became respectful advisers and camp followers.
Some Trotskyists took on the role of blustering denouncers of the ‘bad leaders’ of the ‘Revolution’ instead of advisers. But their view of the camps and the issues remained the same.
The two sides of tailist ‘objectivism’ and sectarian arbitrariness into which Trotskyism was thus decomposed were present, in various combinations, in all the currents after 1948-50.
For all the ‘mainstream’ currents, world politics is fundamentally not so much a story of class struggle as a story of the struggle of two forces – Imperialism and ‘Revolution’ – deemed to operate behind and beneath class movements. While Marxists seek to analyse events as interactions of class forces, they analyse them fundamentally as interactions of Imperialism and ‘Revolution’. Imperialism, for them, is not a system, but a homogeneous force; ‘Revolution’ is not an event, but a continuous process.
They are, of course, concerned for working class action. They see such action as a desirable feature of the Revolution, even an essential feature for the process to be fully healthy. But for them the (same) revolutionary process goes on, working class action or no working class action. The difference between revolutions is not a class difference, but a difference between more or less healthy and developed manifestations of the same process.
This framework is common to them all: it was common, for example, to those who applauded the Vietnamese Communist Party as good leaders of the Revolution and those who denounced the Vietnamese Communist Party as trying to sell out to US imperialism. Because of their common view of the camps and the issues, none of them could conceive that the VCP was making a revolution, but not our revolution.
There is here a mistaken view of the Stalinist states and the Stalinist-led revolutions, and of the relation of the Stalinist camp to imperialism and to the workers’ revolution. The notion that embraced Galtieri as in our ‘class camp’ was an extrapolation from a campist attitude to the Stalinist bloc – an attitude completely alien to Trotskyism, and which appears within would-be Trotskyism as a direct reflection of the pressure of Stalinism on the weak and mainly petty-bourgeois would-be Trotskyist movement.
Central to the problems of post-war Trotskyism is the refusal to register in any stable way the fact – attested to by repeated experience in China, Vietnam, etc. – that Stalinist forces can be both revolutionary against capitalism and simultaneously counter-revolutionary against the working class. Stalinism is always counter-revolutionary against the working class, including in the process in which capitalism is overthrown to be replaced not by workers’ power but by bureaucratic dictatorship on the basis of collectivised property and the repression of the working class.
The campists operate with a concept of revolution in which such key facts as the bureaucratic counter-revolution within every Stalinist-led, anti-capitalist revolution are ignored, treated as mere details, or denied. The ‘Revolution’ they embrace is nameless and classless, defined negatively by what it is against more than positively by what it is.
This framework led most of the would-be Trotskyists to see the South Atlantic war as a conflict – however refracted and distorted – between Imperialism and ‘Revolution’. Since Galtieri was fighting British imperialism, and since Imperialism was seen as one homogeneous force, therefore Galtieri’s war was against Imperialism, and must be a distorted, underdeveloped form of Revolution – even if Galtieri was a bad, sell-out leader of the Revolution.
Thus the concrete class forces were obscured and most of the would-be Trotskyists tied themselves to a crude ‘Third Worldist’ view of imperialism and anti-imperialism. This view increasingly obscures reality given the increasing differentiation in the Third World, with the emergence there of major industrial powers, capital-exporters and regional big powers, and the increasing friction between the big imperialist powers.