This month marks the fortieth anniversary of the Falklands/Malvinas war. Below we republish a chapter on the war from the book, The Rise of Militant, by Peter Taaffe.
Peter explains the approach taken by Marxists on the war, at the time, (Militant, in Britain, and the CWI internationally). This has important lessons on how socialists need to analyse the war in Ukraine today, while taking into account the important different circumstances in the world situation and between the two conflicts.
In 1982 the Falklands War broke out, seemingly as a bolt from the blue which was to have a decisive effect on events in Britain. From the outset Militant posed the question:
“Whose class interest is served by the Argentine invasion and whose class interest is served by the British military expedition?” (1)
The seizure of the Falkland/Malvinas Islands arose from the desperate attempts of the Galtieri dictatorship to ward off the threat of revolution in Argentina. Not for the first time a military dictatorship had engaged in a foreign adventure as a means of reinforcing its grip on power.
Prior to the invasion, Argentina had witnessed an upsurge of working-class opposition to a brutal regime that had engaged in kidnappings, assassinations and torture. 20,000 people had ‘disappeared’. Only in 1995 was it revealed by a military whistleblower just how this was done.
Officers took it in turns to throw naked prisoners out of aircraft over the Atlantic Ocean. This was a military police dictatorship that had used fascist methods against its opponents but was now facing judgement day after a six-year bloody reign of terror. It was for this reason that Galtieri had reactivated the 150-year old claim to the Malvinas.
Just a few days before the invasion on 30 March tens of thousands of youth and workers had defied the military on the streets of Buenos Aires, protesting against impoverishment, unemployment and the suppression of trade union and democratic rights. 1,500 political and trade union opponents of the regime had been arrested just prior to the invasion.
A series of general strikes had also broken out. What would the working class in Argentina have gained from the taking of the Falklands/Malvinas? If the junta had succeeded this would have prolonged the life of the military dictatorship and worsened the conditions of the Argentine workers. On the other hand, argued Militant, “the real motive for the belligerent attitude of the British capitalists is simply their enormous loss of face.” (2)
The British capitalists, like any ruling class, ultimately base their position on their income, but also on their power and prestige. Thatcher on behalf of British capitalism, invoked the rights of the Falkland Islanders.
Britain was allegedly defending democracy against ‘fascist’ Argentina. Yet, asked, Militant why had the Tories been quite happy to sanction massive arms sales to this ‘fascist’ junta and to remain completely silent about the repression of the Argentine working class?
Moreover, they had very little regard for the Falkland Islanders themselves, refusing to develop the island’s services. The Financial Times commented when the conflict broke out:
“It is precisely because no substantial British interest was involved that the crisis was allowed to arise in such a careless way.”
Rather than the Falkland Islands being a paragon of democracy, as Thatcher tried to pretend, it was in effect little more than a benevolent dictatorship with its fate being decided by one firm, the Falkland Islands Company. Nevertheless, for British capitalism to simply have allowed the Argentine junta to seize the islands without any response would have struck a massive blow to its already diminished power and prestige.
Class collaborationist position of Labour’s front bench
Militant opposed the class collaborationist position of Labour’s front bench, which not only supported Thatcher but demanded war against Argentina. In fact Labour support for the Tories was a vital ingredient in the steps leading to the sending of the Task Force. Militant declared:
Workers can give no support whatsoever to the lunatic adventure now being prepared by the Thatcher government… the Labour Party and the trade union movement could stop Thatcher dead in her tracks. The labour movement must declare that it has no confidence whatsoever in the policies or methods of the British government… Labour must demand a general election in order that a Labour government can support and encourage workers’ opposition in Argentina.
Notwithstanding this a legend has grown up around Militant’s alleged position at the time of the Falklands/Malvinas War. Ultra-left critics give the impression that Militant did not oppose the war. The above statement and those in the theoretical journal Militant International Review in June 1982 makes the position absolutely clear: “We are against this capitalist war.”
But Militant’s position was at odds with those lefts like Tony Benn. There was common ground on opposing the war. Differences arose on just how this was to be done and what slogans to raise within the British Labour and trade union movement. How to appeal to the majority of workers in order to mobilise effective mass opposition?
It was not sufficient merely to denounce the war or just to call for the Task Force to be withdrawn. The capitalists would be impervious to such an appeal and Militant estimated that the working class, because of the issues involved, would also remain deaf to such calls. The consciousness of the British workers over the Falklands/Malvinas and, for instance, at the time of the Gulf War were entirely different. The latter was quite clearly seen as a ‘war for oil’.
To force the withdrawal of the Task Force would have involved the organisation of a general strike, which itself would have posed the question of the coming to power of a socialist government. Yet at the outset of the war, such a demand would have received no support from the British workers. We pointed out:
The Falkland Islanders were quite understandably opposed to Argentine sovereignty if that meant the same ‘rights’ for them that it meant for ordinary workers in Argentina itself.
The democratic rights of the 1,800 Falklanders, including the right to self-determination, if they so desired, was a key question in the consciousness of British workers.
A socialist solution to the problem of the Falklands/Malvinas posed the need for a socialist Argentina, and perhaps a socialist, democratic, federation of Argentina and the Falklands/Malvinas with full autonomous rights for the Islanders. However, a forcible annexation by the Argentine dictatorship of the Falkland Islands was an entirely different matter.
Although the population of the Falklands had dwindled to 1,800, hardly a nation in the classical sense of the term, they nevertheless have the right to enjoy their own language, culture and if they so desire their own form of government. Marxists could not be indifferent to the fate of the Falklanders, particularly given the consciousness of the British working class as it developed over this issue.
Militant could not condone the Islands’ subjugation by the dictatorship, represented on the Islands by the newly established military government of General Mendes. This creature was a veteran of the Junta’s ‘dirty war’, the extermination campaign against socialists and workers as well as the guerrilla groups, who had taken up arms against the Argentine military regime.
At the same time, socialists and Marxists had no confidence in the Tory government and its attempts to resolve the crisis by arms. The Task Force was sent to the Falkland Islands, not to defend the Islanders’ rights and conditions, nor was it a question of British ‘democracy’ against ‘fascist’ Argentina.
While the capitalists retained their power they would use it to defend their class interest at home and abroad. But the demand for a general strike, particularly at the outset of the war, it was clear, would have received no support, even from the advanced section of the working class. Even those who declared in favour of “stopping the war” drew back from calling for a general strike. Nor would the call to stop the war or to withdraw the fleet have provided a basis even for a mass campaign of demonstrations, meetings and agitation.
This was because it left unanswered, in the eyes of workers, the vital question of the rights of the Falkland Islanders and the question of opposing the vicious military police dictatorship in Argentina.
Bring down Thatcher government
The only way to stop the war was to bring down the Tory government. But Thatcher had the support of the Labour Party and trade unions. Without this Thatcher could not have gone to war. Michael Foot supported sending the Task Force but, on the eve of the first engagement, also argued that it should not be used. This was a completely inconsistent and ineffectual stance. As if the Tories had sent the Fleet 8,000 miles across the Atlantic simply as a ‘show’ of force.
Militant argued that the Falklands/Malvinas conflict was not a reason for calling off the struggle against the Tories. On the contrary, the looming conflict would drain the resources of British capitalism. Big business would attempt to make the workers pay. This underlined the urgency of stepping up the struggle to bring down the Tory government.
In contrast to Militant, many so-called Marxists in Britain and internationally, gave either tacit or open support to the Argentine dictatorship. This could only play into the hands of the Tories and British imperialism.
These groups reasoned that the only consistent way to oppose the British ruling class was to support the enemy of British capitalism. They ended up by giving support to the Argentine military-police dictatorship. Thus from the correct starting point of opposition to this capitalist war these groups ended in a political cul-de-sac.
Their analysis allegedly drew on Lenin and Trotsky’s attitude toward the first world war. Lenin’s idea of 1914 – ‘Revolutionary Defeatism’ – was invoked. This was done without bothering to examine the circumstances and without understanding Lenin’s method. There were enormous differences between the circumstances of the first world war and the clash almost 70 years later between British imperialism and Argentina over the Falklands/Malvinas.
On a historical point: Lenin himself explained in 1921 that the slogan of “a civil war of revolutionary defeatism” was a slogan for the core of party activists to draw a clear line of distinction between traitors who had supported the war in 1914 and genuine Marxism. It was not a ‘slogan’ for winning the mass of the workers in Russia or elsewhere.
Trotsky also pointed out on the eve of the second world war that the slogan of “revolutionary defeatism” could not “win the masses”, who did not want a “foreign conqueror”. He went on to point out that the decisive role in the conquest of power by the working class in Russia in October 1917 was played not by the refusal to defend the “bourgeois fatherland” but by the slogan of “All Power to the Soviets” and only by this revolutionary slogan. The Bolsheviks’ criticism of imperialism and militarism could never have won the overwhelming majority of the people to the side of the Bolsheviks. The argument that in the Falklands/Malvinas War it was simply a case of ‘imperialist’ Britain against a colonial country, Argentina, did not hold water.
This was used by some as justification for supporting the Junta. The Argentine regime’s invasion was not a war of ‘national liberation’ against imperialism. On the contrary, in seizing the Falklands/Malvinas the Argentine Junta was pursuing the ‘imperialist’ aims of Argentine capitalism.
Galtieri had invaded the Islands for political reasons – to head off revolution and to save his regime. Behind Galtieri stood the Argentine financiers and capitalists, eager to get their hands on the economic potential of Antarctic oil and other natural resources in the region.
Militant pointed out that it was ludicrous to describe Argentine capitalism as a completely dependent, ‘comprador’ capitalist regime dominated by the agents of foreign capital. Statistics showed that Argentina, despite its neo-colonialist subservience to US imperialism as well as West European and Japanese big business, nevertheless had all the characteristics of a semi-industrialised capitalist economy.
The situation would have been different if British imperialism had decided to invade Argentina itself. This was a scenario that Trotsky clearly had in mind when commenting on a hypothetical situation involving Brazil in the 1930s:
In Brazil there now reigns a semi-fascist 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 the ‘fascist’ Brazil against the ‘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.
Merely repeating Trotsky’s words, without grasping his method, the sects seized on this as justification for their “critical support”.
If there were an Argentine population on the Islands, subject to British rule against their will, the situation would also have been different. Then there would have been a case for a national liberation war to free the Islands. Even then the Marxists would advocate class independence from the Argentine dictatorship. But this was not the case in 1982. Apart from one or two Argentines married to Islanders, there had been no Argentineans on the Islands for 150 years. “Galtieri’s war” was a classic case of a crumbling military dictatorship seeking salvation in a foreign adventure.
Marxists in Argentina
While Militant defended the analysis and main slogans which we put forward in Britain in the course of the conflict, at the same time it recognised that a different emphasis would have been needed to be adopted by Argentine Marxists.
While they would be duty bound to oppose the war, pointing to the real aims of the Junta, at the same time once the war had begun the Argentine Marxists would have stood for the full mobilisation of the working class on a clear anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist programme.
This would have necessitated calling for the expropriation of all ‘imperialist assets’ in Argentina, starting with those of British imperialism. At the same time they would have called for the arming of the working class, and by implication the overthrow of the military dictatorship, as a means of winning the war.
In contrast to the Junta Argentine Marxism would have offered full autonomy to the Islanders in the context of a socialist federation with Argentina as a step towards a Socialist United States of Latin America.
British imperialism triumphed over Argentina and in so doing gave an enormous boost to the Thatcher government. However, such an outcome was not at all pre-ordained, as subsequent accounts demonstrated. Militant argued at the time that if one of the British aircraft carriers had been sunk in the invasion of the Islands the war would have developed over a much longer period of time.
Then, as the body bags began to come home, the earlier support would have begun to evaporate. Thatcher was lucky that in this conflict she came up against a more corrupt and incompetent regime than her own. But as Militant had also foreshadowed, the consequences of the defeat of the Argentine Junta was its overthrow and the danger of revolution; one of the reasons why Reagan was a little reluctant to support Thatcher, his number one ally.
In Britain the ‘Falklands factor’ had a decisive effect in 1982-83. Britain’s ‘triumph’ conjured up shades of a ‘glorious imperialist past’. The effect of this was more striking in the South-East and the Midlands which was historically the home of Joseph Chamberlain’s ‘imperialism’.
Boosted by massive support from the press, Thatcher was able to equate, for a time at least, Britain’s military triumph with hopes of a return to Britain’s past ‘economic glory’. In the May 1982 council elections, despite four million unemployed, falling living standards and generally disastrous economic policies, the Tories in fact held on, registering a net overall gain of a handful of seats.
The Falklands factor would be part of the explanation for Thatcher’s 1983 general election victory.
To read The Rise of Militant online or to buy a copy of the book, see: