As we were saying: The Falklands and the war of 1982

The Falkland Islands, small specks in the South Atlantic, were annexed by Britain and settled by British people in the 1830s. There had been no previous indigenous population.

A century and a half later, in the 1970s and 80s, the islands were an odd little relic of empire. They had no huge economic or strategic importance. Their 1,800 or so inhabitants, many of whom would move on to more clement climates after their time in the Falklands, had no desire to separate from Britain.

Argentina had long laid claim to the islands — calling them the Malvinas — on the grounds that it was the nearest landmass. It was not very near — 400 miles to the islands from the closest point on Argentina’s coast, 2,000 miles from Argentina’s main population centres. The British population on the islands was longer-settled than the core of the Argentine nation, also European settlers, mostly from Spain and Italy.

The British government found the islands more a nuisance than an asset, and talked with the Argentine government about schemes to link them with Argentina while keeping some special rights.

In early 1982, however, Argentina’s military dictators faced mounting popular revolt. They wanted a diversion to regain the initiative. They sent troops to seize the islands on 1-2 April. They hoped that Britain, which had long since abandoned any attempt to be a world military power, would lack motivation and resources to resist.

The British government of Margaret Thatcher did, however, counter-attack; re-took the islands after a short war (25 April to 14 June); and made itself a nice little political coup from the affair. Argentina’s military dictator Leopoldo Galtieri resigned three days after the end of the war. His military successor, Reynaldo Bignone, organised elections which brought back civilian government from October 1983. The civilian government brought Galtieri to court for his crimes.

Socialist Organiser, forerunner of Solidarity, opposed Britain’s war, but denounced the Argentine military’s side of the war too. The Falkland islanders had the right to self-determination.

Oddly, in view of its stances today, the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) had much the same line as the AWL. Later, other leftists also came to scorn Galtieri’s anti-imperialist pretensions — see films such as Iluminados Por El Fuego and Los Chicos De La Guerra, and the book Argentina: the Malvinas and the End of Military Rule by the Argentine Marxists Alejandro Debat and Luis Lorenzano.

Most would-be revolutionary socialists, however, thought differently. They saw the conflict as one between “imperialism” (Britain) and “anti-imperialism” or at any rate “non-imperialism” (Argentina), and felt duty-bound to take the “anti-imperialist” side.

Inside our organisation at the time, the “back Argentina” view was put by a section led by Alan Thornett, who now supports Socialist Resistance.

We print extracts from a resolution which summarised the views of our wing of the organisation. The “tendency” referred to in it was a subsection of the Thornett wing which provided that wing with its theoretical justifications.

The framework of our position was still the “Leninist defeatism” whose historical provenance is an artefact of the Stalinisers of the mid-1920s Communist International, and whose malign work Hal Draper analysed (see Workers’ Liberty 2/1).The merit of the resolution, which marked a crossroads in the development of the Workers’ Liberty tendency, is that it tried to be concrete in its analysis and did not “read off” conclusions from the “epochal position”.

Freakish in its origins, at the time the Falklands war appeared to be an episode unlikely to have sequels. Hindsight tells a different story. It posed issues which would be posed again in a number of other wars.

Over Kuwait (1991), Kosova (1999), Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003), wars would be waged by the Western big powers — the “main enemies at home”, to use Karl Liebknecht’s phrase from World War One, for European and North American socialists — but also ostensibly, and in part really, for aims we supported.

As we supported the Falkland Islanders’ freedom, but opposed the British state fighting for that in its own way and with its own concerns in mind, so also we would support the expulsion of conquerors from Kuwait, the preservation of the Kosovars’ national existence, the ejection of the Taliban, and the ousting of Saddam Hussein, but remain politically hostile to the US-led forces fighting those wars.

The 1982 debate thus has an importance beyond its immediate circumstances.


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.

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.

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, to continue the class struggle for the overthrow of both the Tories and the military regime.

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.

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 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.

“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).

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.

We reject the notion that military dictatorships in the Third World are simply the creatures of imperialism: that 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.

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 Two).

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.

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