In April 2007 we remember the war that broke out between Britain and Argentina over the ownership of the Falkland Islands. Many readers will have to dig out an atlas to find out where they are. These Islands, off the coast of Argentina, were uninhabited for many years. Latin Americans call them the Malvinas because their first residents were pirates from St. Malo. The islands were seized by British imperialism for use mainly as a watering station for the navy. Most Argentinians regard the Islands as naturally theirs. In 1982, about 1,800 people of British descent and regarding themselves as British lived there.
The governments of both Britain and Argentina were both desperately unpopular at home in 1982. Margaret Thatcher's government was seen as responsible for three million unemployed. In both countries there was a chauvinist wave at the outbreak of hostilities. All political tendencies were thrown into disarray, and the ‘Falklands factor' was later seen as Thatcher's salvation. The Marxists in Britain had to put an anti-War, anti-imperialist position in a sensitive way that could be understood and accepted by service personnel and their families as well as by naturally anti-Tory and anti-war workers. The late Phil Mitchinson's full article, written in 2002 surveys the Marxist literature on war and revolution. This severely truncated version brings the basic issues to the attention of a new generation of political activists. The full article is available to view in our history section.
By Phil Mitchinson
Tuesday, 02 April 2002
On March 30, 1982, in response to Argentina's deepening economic crisis, and the repression of General Galtieri's military-police dictatorship, the workers had taken to the streets of Buenos Aires. The regime was staring overthrow in the face. It responded – as has so frequently happened in history – by starting a war. One of the principal aims of the junta in invading the Falkland Islands was to distract the attention of the masses.
Trotsky explained many times that foreign policy is just an extension of home policy. The Marxist approach in either case is based on the interests of the working class. In order to determine what our attitude would be to this war, it was necessary to ask: what was the real content of the war? What interests were involved? What class would benefit from it? There is no doubt about the answers to these questions. A victory for Galtieri would have strengthened the dictatorship and prolonged it for a temporary period. Without bringing any benefit to the Argentine people, it would have placed the Falkland Islanders under the jackboot of the Junta. How anyone could view this as a progressive development, it is impossible to see.
Marxism and war
The position of the reformists of right and left on the Falklands war was hopeless. They either cheered on the Tories, or adopted a pacifist stance and appealed to the United Nations to intervene. This was the position of the Stalinists of the Morning Star and of the Labour Left. Labour leader Michael Foot got himself tied up in knots with his pacifist approach. He ended up calling for the fleet to be sent but not used!
Meanwhile, those who called for the troops to be withdrawn, had no serious idea of how this was to be achieved. In reality, to achieve that would have required a general strike. At that time, on that issue, there was no mood for such action. There would have been little support for such a proposal amongst the activists let alone the broad layers of workers. An anti-war campaign based on this slogan would naturally leave workers asking what would happen to the Islanders and what about this dictatorship that we were meant to be fighting? The reformists of left and right had no answer for this.
On the other hand, the small grouplets claiming to be Marxists, or even Trotskyists, argued that, since Argentina was a colonial country, it should be supported in the war. Thus, they showed not the slightest understanding of the method of Marx, Lenin or Trotsky. Their ultra-left madness was perfectly summed up in the hare-brained slogan "Sink the fleet!".
The first task of the Marxists was to expose the lying hypocrisy of the propaganda spewed out by the ruling class. Therefore, we pointed out that the Argentinean junta had been a good friend of British imperialism. Not only did the British imperialists sell arms to the junta and remain silent about its murderous activities, but they were also quite prepared to settle the disputed question of the Falkland Islands – before the junta invaded. In reality, the two sides accidentally came into conflict over the Falklands. From the point of view of both ruling classes, the islands themselves were largely irrelevant to the conflict that followed.
The real reason why Britain decided to go to war over the Falklands was not defence of the rights of a handful of Islanders. The real reason for the war was that British imperialism could not accept the seizure of the Islands by Argentina because it would have undermined its prestige on a world scale.
When the Argentine army captured the Islands, British imperialism was humiliated before the entire world. The photographs of British soldiers lying on the ground – having been taken prisoner by the Argentineans – placed a question mark over every treaty signed by Britain with countries in the Middle East and elsewhere. It could never be accepted.
Overnight the attitude of London to the junta changed. They suddenly "discovered" that the regime in Buenos Aires was "fascist". As The Guardian recently pointed out: "The fact that we'd traded with the junta, welcomed its leaders and sold arms to them but now realised that it was a filthy dictatorship after all, was swallowed without a burp." (The Guardian, February 25, 2002).
Lenin on war
In 1914 Lenin had indeed argued that the best outcome of that war would be the defeat of Russian Tsarism. The imperialist war he argued should be transformed into a civil war. He also said that, for revolutionaries, the defeat of one's own bourgeoisie was "the lesser evil". This was now seized upon by the ultra-lefts and applied to the Falklands in 1982. But in order to understand Lenin's method, it is necessary to take into account the whole of his writings – not just those of the period 1914-16.
Thus, when he returned to Russia in March 1917, he modified his stand – not the basic position, of course, but the way in which he expressed it. He had to take into consideration what he called the "honest defencist mood of the masses".
The situation in Britain
The British Marxists did our duty in opposing the war. We characterised it as a reactionary war, waged for the interests of British imperialism. We combated the lying propaganda to the effect that this was a war to defend the rights of the Falkland Islanders. We opposed the poisonous anti-Argentinean chauvinism of the yellow press. We pointed out that Galtieri and the Argentine junta were the enemies of the working class. The Argentinean workers are not our enemy, we said. Galtieri was the common enemy of both Argentinean and British workers.
The Tories are attacking workers at home, we said. The Tories have sent in the fleet for their own ends, therefore the first task was to get rid of the Tories. In other words we said to the British workers: Our main enemy is at home. Let us deal with this enemy first, then we will talk about Galtieri.
We posed this class line in terms the British workers could understand. We demanded a general election to get rid of the Tories. The Labour leaders should drop their quasi-coalition of silence over the action in the South Atlantic, and take up the struggle for socialism at home and abroad. Let Labour take power and implement a real socialist policy. Then we could wage a revolutionary war against Galtieri, combined with a class appeal to the workers of Argentina, to overthrow the dictatorship.
As a solution to the problem of the Falkland Islands we raised the idea of a socialist federation of Argentina, Britain and the Falkland Islands. The latter could have full autonomy, language rights and so on, in the context of a socialist federation, based not on forcible annexation but on fraternal relations with the people of a free socialist Argentina.
Not an anti-imperialist war
Argentina is not a main imperialist power, on the scale of Britain and the USA. But neither is it a poor exploited colony, although one could argue that there are some semi-colonial features, particularly dependence on foreign capital. In reality, Argentina is quite a developed country. Not so long ago it was the tenth industrial nation in the world. It is still the second biggest economy in South America, after Brazil. The working class is the decisive majority of society.
In more recent years the propagandists of the oligarchy have occasionally tried to present Argentina as a poor country, the victim of foreign aggressors, concealing the fact that Buenos Aires has some imperialist ambitions of its own. This demagogic propaganda is just a fig leaf. What is the real situation? The urban population of Argentina back in 1982 accounted for 82 percent of the total. True, there were high levels of unemployment and 57 percent of the workforce were engaged in the service sector; nevertheless 29 percent were employed in industry compared to 14 percent in agriculture. Industry accounted for a little under a half, 45 percent, of GNP, while agriculture made up just 13 percent. These figures are sufficient to demolish the myth that Argentina is a backward, semi-feudal country.
Was it permissible to call for support for the junta, for the regime that was murdering and torturing workers? Was it permissible to adopt an uncritical attitude to the war and present it as something progressive? Absolutely not.
The great Marxist James Connolly explained long ago that we cannot accept capitalism's ownership of land whether the fields of a single farm or an entire country. Ireland, he explained, was not its earth and soil, its flag, or its title deeds, but its people. That is a good starting-point for the working-out of a final solution to the Malvinas-Falklands question, which can only be solved through socialist revolution and an internationalist policy