The following article was first published in Socialist Voice No. 17 (Fall 1982).
The repercussions set in motion by Argentina’s seizure of the Malvinas (Falkland) Islands from Britain on April 2 were far out of proportion to the importance of the islands themselves. Despite the fact that the Argentine military junta enjoyed excellent relations with all the imperialist powers, world imperialism was clearly shaken by the seizure and united against it. Britain’s Western European partners quickly joined in economic sanctions against the “aggressor.” The United States dropped its initial “honest broker” role and offered military aid to its British ally. Even Russia and China refused to veto Britain’s anti-Argentine resolution in the United Nations. Any threat to the delicate fabric of world stability had to be squashed.
For Marxist revolutionaries, the united front of imperialism was the decisive issue in the war and meant that we stood for the defeat of Britain and the military defense of Argentine forces. Our position of military support implies not the least political support for the Argentine dictatorship, a regime justly hated by the working class for its open butchery of militants and class repression. Indeed, Galtieri’s regime was faltering and its attack on the Malvinas was a diversion intended to offset growing working-class unrest. From the junta’s point of view, the move was a desperate gamble that resulted in high military and economic losses, whose burden fell most heavily on the masses. Given the line-up of forces, Galtieri’s attack was adventurist and should be condemned, but once war broke out Marxists defended Argentina from British imperialism.
Great Britain’s historical claim to the islands is clearly colonialist. Argentina’s claims are more tenable but far from certain; tortuous historical claims alone are not the basis for Marxists to defend any country in a war. Britain has long had an exploitative relationship toward Argentina. While no longer the world’s chief imperialist power, it has long played an important role in an Argentine economy dominated by foreign ownership. The Malvinas Islands symbolically represent this relationship, which is why the Argentine people have always included the question in anti-imperialist outbreaks and rallied behind the military effort of a government that is so despised.
That the general interests of world imperialism was the key issue at stake is indicated by several additional facts. Britain had not really asserted an eternal claim to sovereignty over the islands; it had been negotiating with Argentina for years over a transfer and mineral rights, and had already allowed Argentina to take over many of the provisioning and servicing functions needed by the islanders. The claim that Britain was defending the Falklanders’ “right of self-determination” is a smokescreen; on the one hand, colonial settlers have no rights to maintain imperialist rule; on the other, the Falklanders were not permitted self-government under Britain and were in many cases even denied British citizenship.
What compelled Britain to defend so avidly the territory it was previously willing to negotiate away was Argentina’s act of seizure. If it allowed the islands to go then its colonial possession of Gibraltar, Northern Ireland, etc. would have been weakened, as would the possessions of all imperialist powers. The “anti-imperialist” rulers also had to declare themselves. Russia displayed a mild and carefully limited tilt toward the Argentine side after Britain launched its counter-invasion. “Non-aligned” Cuba backed “non-aligned” Argentina—and neither Russia (which imports lots of Argentine grain) nor Cuba had a word of criticism of the bloody anti-communist junta.
Observe also the US’s unhysterical opposition to the presence of Soviet ships tailing Britain’s South Atlantic fleet (and imagine Reagan’s reaction to a Soviet fleet off El Salvador!). All imperialists admired the junta and its willingness to torture in the name of liberty; it had none of the dubious (if fictitious) image of decency which troubles world leaders about more liberal forces of the semi-colonial world. This proves once again that the real conflict dominating world politics is not East versus West but the struggle of the masses against capitalism. The danger of the Malvinas seizure was that Argentina’s example would be seen as a victory by neo-colonial peoples everywhere and would be followed by other struggles with social revolutionary possibilities. In sum, Britain’s victory meant strengthening imperialism everywhere. Its defeat, no matter what the character of the Argentine junta, would have undermined capitalism’s sway.
In addition to its impact on imperialism, the other key factor for Marxists is the war’s effect on the proletariat, especially in Argentina and Britain. In Argentina, the illusions of the workers in their own nationalism was strengthened by Galtieri’s war. It was essential for Argentine revolutionaries to point out that the bourgeois regime was betraying the anti-imperialist struggle (as the scandals about the military’s cowardice and poor provisioning later revealed); the war could only have been won through a revolutionary struggle against imperialism—seizing British and US owned properties and rousing the masses of the entire continent. The point of the war was not empty islands but the need for imperialism united to crush the oppressed and exploited peoples of the world. Thus only an international struggle against imperialism (that is, capitalism) could answer the attack.
Such a social struggle was of course impossible for Galtieri, and the defeat has deepened the crisis of the military regime. Galtieri was already forced to withdraw his officers aiding the US backed junta in El Salvador. A renewed working-class offensive would create the opportunity to overturn not just the junta but Argentine capitalism and its imperialist yoke.
In Britain, both the war and the victory gave a jingoist boost to the ruling class, which the Thatcher government has been already using as a weapon in the domestic class struggle. The support for Thatcher’s war by the Labour Party was especially disgraceful. Party leader Michael Foot denounced the Tory cabinet—for not doing enough to defend Britain’s interests in the South Atlantic. The Labour left led by Tony Benn at first did nothing to oppose sending the British fleet or to stem the chauvinist tide of “national unity.” Later the Bennites called for the fleet to be halted (not even recalled: timid pacifism indeed!) and urged handing the matter over to the imperialist-run United Nations. Their assumption throughout was that Britain’s cause was just because of the “fascist” nature of the Argentine junta (armed all along by “democratic” Britain and its allies), but they preferred “peaceful” warfare like economic sanctions.
The far-left groups tailing Benn inside the Labour Party did no better than the outright Bennites. The Militant Tendency, which the witchhunting Labour leadership is attempting to expel because of its supposed Trotskyism, did its best to earn its keep as a disguised defender of British imperialism. It stuck up for the “rights” of the Falklanders, it devoted column after column to denouncing the Argentine junta, and it even attacked Thatcher and the current Labour leaders as warmongers. But its solution was urging unions everywhere to boycott Argentine trade (certainly not British!) and “a Labour government pledged to socialist policies"; presumably once Labour was in power the war would then be supportable. Militant conveniently forgot the political fact known to Marxists for over half a century that a Labour government is just as imperialist as the Tories—in order, in effect, to argue that the labor movement could defend British interests better than the capitalists themselves. For Britain, Militant advocated general elections to achieve its socialist government; but it demanded that the Argentine workers launch a revolution. Parliamentary cretinism at home coupled with “revolutionary defeatism” in the rival country is time-honored Kautskyism.
Socialist Organiser stands only slightly to the left of Militant inside Labour and behaved accordingly. Its April 15 editorial demanded “Withdrawal of the Argentine troops from the Falklands,” also backing the Falklanders’ “right to decide their own future,” which can only mean to remain part of the British empire. Although this position effectively supports Britain’s war claims, Socialist Organiser held back from endorsing the war itself. But its solution is the same as Militant’s: other people (like the Argentines) have to overthrow their ruling classes; British workers can bring down Thatcher through trade unionism and elections. This national chauvinism is given a proletarian veneer by hiding inside the Labour Party.
The main sponsor of Socialist Organiser is the Workers Socialist League, the pseudo-Trotskyist group recently cobbled together by Alan Thornett and Sean Matgamna. The paper itself opens its pages to the entire left Labour parliamentary swamp. Its “broadness” consists of its ability to dodge responsibility for a particular view. Thus the May 6 issue printed an interview on the war with Member of Parliament Reg Race that was highlighted on the front page; in it Race called for economic pressure against Argentina (by British capitalism!) and a “negotiated settlement,” as if that would be any less imperialist than war. All this adds up to opposing Thatcher’s militarism while endorsing the “democratic” excuses she uses to justify it. (We note that the WSL has a U.S. affiliate, the Revolutionary Workers League, which correctly stood for Britain’s defeat in the war. But the real test of a left-wing tendency in wartime is to oppose the imperialism of one’s own ruling class, and in this the "Trotskyist International Liaison Committee,” through its British section, abjectly failed.)
In contrast to the left groups that gave backhanded support to Britain’s war aims, the Socialist Workers Party and Spartacist League of Britain both attempted to stand firmly against Britain without taking the Argentine side. The failure to recognize the one-sided imperialist character of the war is characteristic of both these tendencies. The SWP issued a powerful condemnation of the Labour left and their pseudo-Marxist tails in Socialist Review of May 20. But it could not account for the war; it saw national pride on both sides but did not see the imperialist cabal backing Thatcher nor the anti-imperialist mass sentiment that Galtieri had to divert. Instead it wrote: “There is no longer a rational, if predatory, cause of dispute. The Falklands are of no great significance. Pure prestige and internal politics are the driving force on both sides."
If there is no rational cause for the war (from the bourgeois point of view), it is remarkable that so many imperialist powers lined up behind Britain from the start. The SWP cannot see the threat to imperialism’s world stability because it has always fundamentally considered events in the “third world” irrelevant; “the main enemy is at home,” in the SWP’s eyes, because the only struggles with real consequences are at home. It believes that imperialism “is no longer central to the survival of capitalism, nor is the export of capital from advanced to backward countries” (Introduction to the special theoretical issue of International Socialism No. 61). With this view the SWP was able to avoid the not-so-hidden form of British chauvinism of Militant and Socialist Organiser, since colonial wars are supposedly unnecessary; but it expresses another. The “third world” peoples are purely objects, if victimized ones, condemned to be mere observers of the serious business of the advanced nations.
The Spartacists also call the war absurd: “Indeed what British capitalism expects to gain out of this supposed war of ’imperialist aggrandisement’ is a further loss of Argentine markets to the Japanese and a possible debt default” (Spartacist Britain, May 1982). But unable to openly surrender the Leninist analysis of imperialism as easily as does the SWP, they suggest that perhaps Argentina is imperialist too! “Argentina part of the ’Third World’?” asks Workers Vanguard (June 11), going on to salute its “European” standard of living and class structure, overlooking the statistical fact that Britain’s per capita GNP is 2.8 times Argentina’s, while the U.S.’s is 4.8 times as great. But then comes a second thought, “Argentina is not even a secondary imperialist country like Australia or Canada,” which carefully suggests that it might be imperialist of a lower degree. Finally the Spartacists make up their mind: Argentina is one of the “intermediate capitalist states” like “East Europe between the wars, Portugal, Greece or Israel today.” We note that Trotsky considered pre-World War II Poland and Czechoslovakia to be imperialist, while Israel and Portugal certainly are so today. (Portugal is not the colonial power it once was, but it still invests heavily in its ex-colonies.)
The Spartacists have always denied the crucial difference for Leninists between oppressed and oppressor countries (see our article Spartacist Chauvinism in Socialist Voice No. 8). When they do make distinctions they tend to favor the advanced: thus they are concerned lest an avalanche of desperate immigrants from the neo-colonial world inundate the “national identity” of the imperialist heartlands (see Workers Vanguard, January 18, 1974). And now, if Argentina is imperialist (albeit third rate) then both sides can be equally damned. The only imperialism the Spartacists recognize nowadays is the West’s struggle against the “workers” USSR. As with the SWP, the non-advanced world has no choice but to watch the big boys fight it out.
We note that the British Workers Power group has taken a position on the war that, judging by its press, is free of the national chauvinism so common on the left in the imperialist countries. It stands for Britain’s defeat; but its call for the recall of the British fleet without specifying who is to do this could only raise illusions in the Labour Party.
The clearest statement of the Leninist position was made by Trotsky in 1938 in a parallel situation:
I will take the most simple and obvious example. In Brazil there now reigns a semifascist regime that every revolutionary can only view with hatred. Let us assume, however, that on the morrow England enters into a military conflict with Brazil. I ask you on whose side of the conflict will the working class be? I will answer for myself personally—in this case I will be on the side of ’fascist’ Brazil against ’democratic’ Great Britain. Why? Because in the conflict between them it will not be a question of democracy or fascism. If England should be victorious, she will put another fascist in Rio de Janeiro and will place double chains on Brazil. If Brazil on the contrary should be victorious, it will give a mighty impulse to national and democratic consciousness of the country and will lead to the overthrow of the Vargas dictatorship. The defeat of England will at the same time deliver a blow to British imperialism and will give an impulse to the revolutionary movement of the British proletariat. Truly, one must have an empty head to reduce world antagonisms and military conflicts to the struggle between fascism and democracy. Under all masks one must know how to distinguish exploiters, slave-owners and robbers! (Writings, 1938-39, page 34)