We continue this reply by taking up the question of the 1982 Malvinas/Falklands war, explaining what the real position of the British Marxists was at the time. In answer to Oviedo's blatant distortions Alan Woods explains that they opposed the war as an imperialist war on both sides, and adopted a genuine internationalist position. To be continued.
The third article carries yet another striking and colourful title “Alan Woods and the Malvinas war – God save the Queen... and the kelpers”. It is at this point that Luis Oviedo informs me that, in addition to all my other counterrevolutionary sins, I am also an imperialist and a monarchist. How does my friend arrive at such an interesting conclusion?
Luis Oviedo gets completely carried away: “Together with the Queen's soldiers, Woods shouted at the top of his lungs, ‘Argies go home’. For Socialist Appeal, the Malvinas are British and not a colonial occupied territory. Which is why they raised "self-determination for the Kelpers" –who did not wish to separate themselves from Great Britain– but not the independence of the islands."
In the first place, Woods could hardly shout together with the soldiers of the Queen, since Woods was not even living in Britain at the time, but in Spain. In the second place, neither Woods nor anyone else on the Left in Britain has ever shouted “Argies go home” either at the top of his voice or in a whisper. This is yet another invention of friend Luis, whose imagination, apart from its vividness, definitely has a morbid and slightly hysterical streak to it. But hysteria is hardly an argument.
To begin with a small factual correction: Luis Oviedo refers to the position of Socialist Appeal. As he must know, Socialist Appeal did not even exist at the time, at least under that name. His remarks refer to the position of the Militant Tendency, of which Ted Grant and myself were leading members at the time. We always took a consistent internationalist position, and our position on this question was no exception. But since comrade Oviedo is determined to find fault with everything, he must do so on this also. How does he do this?
First of all, I am subjected to a severe criticism for using the word Falklands, instead of the Spanish term Las Malvinas. This is taken as indisputable proof that we are open agents of imperialism. This argument is just childish. The simple fact is that, in the English language, the name for these islands is – the Falklands. If I were writing in Spanish, I would use Malvinas (and not Los Falklands, as Luis sometimes does, for greater effect), as is done in our Spanish language website. But, as I am sitting in London (not Londres), and writing in the English language, I have used the English name. However in order to please him, we will make a small concession and use the term Malvinas throughout, even when writing in English.
Luis Oviedo makes a few quotes from the document written by Ted Grant, in May 1982. But, following his usual method, he quotes isolated passages taken out of context in order to distort their meaning. He concludes: “So the current of our opponent Alan Woods promoted imperialist war against Argentina”. At this point even the patience of a saint would be exhausted. For what Oviedo writes here is a blatant and scandalous lie. We will now deal with the Malvinas war, our attitude to it and the Marxist attitude to war in general.
What caused the war?
The attitude of Marxists to war is determined by concrete circumstances. It is not determined by superficial considerations such as “who attacked first” and so on, but by what classes wage the war, for what specific aims, and in whose interests. In order to work out a position in relation to a given conflict it is necessary to cut across the patriotic demagogy and lies that are always put forward by the ruling class of each side and expose the real motives that are involved. Moreover, it is necessary to put forward a class position in a skilful way such that it can get an echo in the masses.
What were the concrete circumstances of the Malvinas war? In order to clarify our position it is first necessary to remind ourselves of the chain of events that led to war. The reason why the Junta decided to start a war had nothing to do with a genuine national liberation struggle. It was a manoeuvre designed to head off revolution.
The Argentine Junta was the distilled essence of the counterrevolution. 30,000 people had been killed or had disappeared. Many more were imprisoned and tortured. Yet Galtieri had excellent relations with Washington and London. But by 1982 the Junta was completely discredited and hanging by a thread. The economy was in difficulties, with a growth of unemployment and a rate of inflation of 150 percent. There was massive discontent, with the beginning of strikes and demonstrations. This culminated on March 30th with street demonstration in Buenos Aires resulting in 2,000 detained and hundreds injured.
The Junta itself was split. It needed a diversion to head off the revolutionary movement. First they considered a war with Chile over the Beagle Channel. Later they decided that an invasion of the Malvinas would be easier. Why? Because their good friends in London had given them to understand that Britain was ready to help them by handing over the islands. Therefore, they were convinced that the invasion would not be opposed.
The head of the British delegation Richard Luce replied to the government in Buenos Aires: “in diplomatic language, Luce’s reply meant that Britain was wiling to explore the means whereby Argentina might eventually achieve their goal of sovereignty over the islands, and that, if they were patient, they would get it.” (The Falklands War – the Full Story, published by the Sunday Times, p. 26.)
Galtieri was also convinced that the USA would back him. He had good reason for this belief. He was a close ally of US imperialism. The Junta acted as the jackal of the US imperialists. Argentina was President Reagan’s main ally in South America. Galtieri had gone so far as to send Argentine troops to support the right wing government of El Salvador. They also helped the USA in its fight against the Sandinistas: “Argentina had 500 army men operating mainly out of Honduras on sabotage raids in Nicaragua”, one US official admitted, “It was something they believed in – it was an extension of the dirty war.”
This expresses very clearly the real relation between Argentina and imperialism: not the relation of an oppressed colonial slave but that of a junior partner, a willing accomplice, eager to please by participating in all the crimes of the chief bandit. To present this relationship as the traditional relationship between a colony (or semi-colony) and imperialism simply does not fit in with the facts.
Jean Kirkpatrick, the US ambassador to the UN, was a great admirer of the Junta. She made no secret of her view that the USA must support Argentina and all other right wing dictatorships in Latin America as a way of combating communism. She supported the invasion of the islands, and this view had strong support within the State Department. This further encouraged Galtieri to believe he could invade with impunity.
It is not easy to conceal preparations for an invasion. But all the warnings were ignored. The reason is quite clear: British imperialism did not want a war with the Junta, with which it had excellent relations. A section of the Tory administration wanted to help the Junta by handing over the islands. But the Junta, terrified of the growing revolutionary mood, was in a hurry.
Even when Costa Mendez on March 2nd sent Lord Carrington what amounted to an ultimatum, threatening to break off negotiations unless the British made immediate concessions, no serious measures were taken by London to prevent an invasion. At this stage, the sending of a small task force would probably have been enough to make the Junta think twice. But London’s inaction gave Galtieri the green light to invade. Not once did the British government say to Buenos Aires: “If you invade, we will take action.”
The sending of the task force to the South Atlantic was an imperialist action on Britain’s part, and we denounced it accordingly. But the intention was not to invade, conquer and enslave Argentina. The comparison with Iraq – which was occupied by the imperialists – or Brazil in the 1930s – is therefore completely incorrect. Argentina was not invaded or occupied. Its people were not enslaved. That was never the intention. Incidentally, if the British imperialists had invaded Argentina, as they did in Iraq, our position would have been to support Argentina. But that was not the case.
The aim of the British imperialists was more limited. They were determined to regain possession of the Islands because of the blow to their prestige dealt by the Argentine invasion. Some “clever” people argued that the aim was the exploitation of the oil that is supposed to be present in the sea around the islands. But 20 years later there is no sign of this, although they have made some money out of the rich fishing grounds.
The paradox is that, if the Junta had not been in such a hurry, they could have got the islands handed over without the need for a war. London was not interested in the Malvinas, which at that time were a considerable financial burden and had no economic or strategic importance to Britain. For some time the Argentine Junta – which, let us not forget – had excellent relations with the government of Margaret Thatcher – was engaged in negotiations for the handing over of the islands. For reasons that must be clear even to Luis Oviedo, the inhabitants of the islands were not exactly overjoyed at this prospect. But the feelings of the islanders was a matter of indifference to Carrington, who in secret negotiations gave the Junta to understand that the islands would be handed over to them.
Galtieri wrongly interpreted this to mean that the British would do nothing if he invaded the islands. That was a serious mistake. Prestige is very important to an imperialist power like Britain, which has defence agreements with many countries, oil rich states in the Persian Gulf, for example. The press photos of British soldiers lying on the ground, prisoners of the Argentine army, broadcast around the world, was a blow to their prestige. It could not be tolerated. Therefore, British imperialism counterattacked.
By invading the islands, therefore, Galtieri miscalculated. But he succeeded in his immediate aim. Once the invasion of the Malvinas was announced the revolutionary movement was overwhelmed by a surge of patriotism. The unions immediately suspended the strikes, and instead of street demonstrations against the Junta, there were mass patriotic demonstrations of people waving Argentine flags and cheering the generals.
War is the continuation of politics by other means. It is a political question as much as a military one. Napoleon explained long ago the vital importance of morale in war. If the working class had taken power, there could have been a real fight against imperialism. But a reactionary regime can never fight imperialism, with which it is tied by a thousand threads. In fact, the only reason Galtieri invaded is that he was convinced there would be no resistance. “There will be much noise,” predicted Costa Mendez, “but that is all.” This was a bad mistake.
The invasion of the islands put the British imperialists in a difficult position. A section of the ruling class (Luce, Carrington) wanted to hand over the islands to the Junta. They did not want to fight a war because it would threaten the stability of the regime in Buenos Aires. That explains the total inaction of the British before the invasion – something that is otherwise inexplicable, since it is materially impossible that they had “not noticed” the preparations for invasion.
London gave a strong hint to the Junta that the islands would be handed over if only they would wait a little. But the Junta could not wait, since they feared a revolution from one moment to the next. When they acted precipitately, they were taken off balance. Thatcher was furious and demanded action. She could not accept the humiliation of the British army by Argentina. That faction of the Tories who favoured throwing the islands to Galtieri, like a man throwing a bone to a dog, found itself in a minority. Carrington was forced to resign. War was then inevitable.
The Junta was shocked to learn that the British were ready to fight. In the course of the negotiations, the Junta almost immediately dropped its demand for sovereignty. This showed that this was not a real war of national liberation, but only a reactionary intrigue to save the Junta from overthrow. They were terrified of the British army and even more terrified of their own masses. The reactionary generals were afraid of a war and were prepared to accept a compromise to save face, but Thatcher was implacable. She would accept nothing less than total surrender and the handing back of the islands.
The war placed the US imperialists in a difficult position, since both Galtieri and Thatcher were valued allies. But once Washington’s attempts to get a compromise settlement had broken down, Reagan had to decide and he decided in favour of Britain, a long-standing and ultimately more important ally.
The viciousness of Thatcher and the British imperialists was shown in the sinking of the Belgrano, with the loss of over 368 lives. But the lives of British personnel were of no more interest to them. The fact that they were prepared to send the fleet into the South Atlantic with no air cover was proof of that. Thatcher deliberately ordered the sinking of the Belgrano to sabotage a negotiated settlement, brokered by the Americans, which Costa Mendez was on the point of accepting.
Why did Argentina lose the war?
At no point does Luis Oviedo ask the most important question: why did the invasion of the Islands fail? From a military point of view, Argentina could and should have won the war. The sending of the British fleet across the Atlantic without adequate air cover was a complete adventure, which only an ignorant petty bourgeois parvenu like Thatcher could have contemplated (her generals were against it because they knew the dangers it entailed).
Was it inevitable for the British to have won? By no means. In war very few things are inevitable. It is, as Napoleon said, the most complex of all equations. From a purely military point of view it was quite possible for Argentina to have won. But the answer to this question is not military but political. War always exposes the rottenness of a reactionary regime. The Malvinas adventure cruelly exposed the weaknesses of Argentine capitalism and the Junta. In the moment of truth it collapsed like a house of cards.
It is true that the British army was a well-trained and well-equipped professional force. But that does not explain everything. There were many disadvantages on the British side. First, defence is to offence as three to one. That is to say, to take a defended position, one would normally require three soldiers to every defender. In fact, the Argentine army outnumbered the British by about three to one. This gave them a big advantage. They had sufficient time to fortify the islands and dig in, in the time it took the British fleet to cross the Atlantic.
The British forces were fighting far from home. Their supply lines were over-extended. The loss of a single aircraft carrier would have been a disaster. As it was, they lost a key supply ship – the Atlantic Conveyor – to Argentine exocet missiles. From a military point of view, the British expedition was an irresponsible adventure. I remember that a group of Spanish army officers published a letter in El Pais, stating categorically that the Argentines could not lose. Yet the British succeeded in recapturing the islands without too much trouble. Why?
It cannot be said that the average British soldier is any braver than the average Argentine soldier. The Argentines are capable of great bravery and they have shown this many times in history. But here the question of morale is decisive. And this is inseparable from the regime in the army and society. A rotten reactionary regime can only produce a rotten and reactionary army. Officers like Lami Dozo were trained in a fascist ideology from a young age. Several of his tutors were German Nazis like Hans-Ulrich Rudel, who was arrested by the Americans in 1945 – and obligingly released. In his book In Spite of Everything, he supported almost everything the Nazis did.
Another of his tutors, Jordan Bruno Genta, who was assassinated by the Montoneros in 1974, wrote a stream of books spouting obscenities against freemasons and Jews. He also wrote a doctrine for the air force that justified military intervention in politics and argued for devotion, not to the constitution but to “God and the motherland”. Any action the military might have to take in defence of the “motherland” (read oligarchy) was excused by “God’s will”. This kind of fascist thinking was summed up in his book Guerra Contrarrevolucionaria. It was the inspiration for the fascist Triple A death squads.
Such an environment is fertile ground for producing murderers and scum but not good generals and fighters. The army is only a reflection of society, and the army that invaded the Malvinas was a mirror of Argentine society at that time. This was no real army of liberation. It was still the army of the Junta, led by the same reactionary gangsters that had murdered 30,000 people. Captain Alfredo Astiz was a typical specimen. Known variously as “the Blond Angel”, “the Hawk” and “the Butcher of Cordoba”, he distinguished himself as a murderer and torturer of women in the dirty war. But he did not show the same spirit when confronted by the British army. He surrendered like a coward, and was later flown back to Buenos Aires on a first class ticket.
War is also a class question. The poor working class conscripts who were sent to the islands were not equipped for war. Many of them did not have proper equipment, clothes or even food. They were demoralised and that explains why the British succeeded with relative ease in retaking the islands. This is the crux of the matter. It was absurd to imagine that such a regime and such an army would wage a serious struggle against British imperialism.
The Junta’s reactionary gamble failed. A letter published in La Prensa in July 1982 said: “Never again must we let a government we did not elect lead us into a war we did not want.” As always the main victims were ordinary working class people. To the long list of the crimes of the Junta must be added all those young Argentine soldiers who died on the islands in appalling conditions because of the rotten and incompetent regime. They lacked the most basic things: proper clothes, boots, food. How were they supposed to fight the British army? Above all the young Argentine troops who were sent to the Malvinas lacked motivation and morale. That is why they lost.
After the war, British commanders expressed their surprise that the Argentine army did not put up greater resistance. Major Chris Keeble said of the Battle of Goose Green:
“We had been given all this garbage about their equipment and their food, and dysentery being rife. All that was really irrelevant. We knew that when we got to the Falklands that we would have the same problems: trench foot, shortages of this and that. The question that decides it all is whether they want to fight. There was not a man in 2 Para who did not want to do that operation. Their [the Argentines’] weakness even before we had attacked is that they did not really want to fight. They were not 100 percent behind their government’s action in the Falklands. All that crap about being educated from birth about the Malvinas. If they were that committed, why didn’t they fight for it?”
In these lines there is more than a little imperialist arrogance. But there is also an element of truth. In war, soldiers are expected to fight and die for a cause. The Argentine conscript did not want to die for a corrupt and reactionary government that had sent him, ill-prepared, to a frozen rock in the South Atlantic for reasons that were not totally clear to him. A Para sergeant said: “I felt sorry for them, especially the young ones; they didn’t really know why they were there.” (The Falklands War – the Full Story, published by the Sunday Times.)
What happened in the 1982 war is a proof that the rotten and corrupt Argentine bourgeoisie is incapable of playing any sort of progressive role, at home or abroad: that is the point that the Argentine Marxists must explain to the people. The forcible seizing of the Islands by a bloody military dictatorship had not a single atom of progressive content. And that is why it failed.
The only way in which the Malvinas issue can be resolved is for the Argentine working class to take power. The existence of a regime of workers’ democracy in Buenos Aires would be a powerful force of attraction for all the peoples – including the inhabitants of the Malvinas.
A socialist Argentina would immediately take the initiative of offering to establish a Socialist Federation of Latin America. With full employment, high living standards and full democratic rights, this would be an irresistible prospect, not just for the peoples of Spanish-speaking South America, but also for the inhabitants of the islands.
We must pose the question concretely. What power of attraction can the present capitalist regime in Argentina have for anyone? Mass unemployment, poverty and hunger are not a good advertisement! Many Argentine citizens have voted with their feet and left to seek their fortune in foreign parts. Under such conditions, why should the people of the Malvinas want to join Argentina? To pose the question is to answer it. But it must be posed in class terms, not as empty nationalist demagogy.
Let us speak clearly. The problem of the Malvinas will never be solved by the rotten and reactionary Argentine bourgeoisie. The Argentine oligarchy has dragged a once prosperous country into the abysm of poverty and hunger. It cannot solve any of the problems of the Argentine people. To imagine that such a bourgeoisie could settle the issue of the Malvinas is simply madness. The prior condition to solve this question – and all the other questions facing the masses – is that the working class must take power.
A ‘war of national liberation’?
Twenty years later we have nothing to hide and nothing to be ashamed of. But among honest elements in the Left in Argentina, there are doubts. The demand for an honest debate is growing. The chauvinist elements are losing ground. Even Luis Oviedo shows signs of wishing to qualify his enthusiasm for the Malvinas adventure when he hastens to assure us that the PO opposed the invasion of the Islands:
“Let's make this clear: Política Obrera (antecessor to the Partido Obrero) was opposed to the invasion (it was the only one to do so), but was not opposed to defending Argentina headed by Galtieri against Thatcher's imperialist fleet supplied by the US at its base in Ascension Island and guided by Reagan's satellites.”
The PO has made a big song and dance about our alleged “betrayal” and “pro-imperialist” position. There is not a word of truth in all these irresponsible accusations. We have never hidden our position on the Malvinas because we have nothing to hide. We invite the comrades in Argentina to republish what they wrote at the time. Let people judge for themselves who had a false position at the time and since.
What position did the Left in Argentina take on the issue of the war? Was it permissible, for the sake of a few islands in the Atlantic, to forget about the 30,000 dead and join hands with the Junta, even temporarily? We do not think so. To imagine that the reactionary Argentine Junta could play a progressive role in this conflict was the height of naiveté. War is the continuation of politics by other means. The invasion of the Malvinas was only the continuation of the Junta’s domestic policy, dictated by the need to survive, by creating a diversion.
The reactionary nature of the invasion of the islands is very well expressed in the following:
“The first thing that must be made clear is that the recovery of a territory that belongs to us historically and geographically and that is in the imperialists' hands is not, in itself, sufficient to characterize that action as a true defence of national independence. It is evident that that characterization depends on the ends pursued by that act of recovery, as all as on the overall policy of the government carrying it out.
“If the recovery of the Malvinas is just a means of switching masters in the South Atlantic, or a way of solving a conflict that is hindering the surrender of the resources of the region to foreign capital, it is clear that this action has an anti-imperialist appearance, but its real meaning is a greater subjugation to imperialism. Something like that must not surprise us in a continent where bourgeois nationalism has a long history of demagogy and a long experience in the employment of the tactics of deceit towards the popular masses.”
This is very well put, and expresses the essence of the matter. We have no fundamental difference with what is said in these lines. Who is the author? Comrade Jorge Altamira, the leader of the PO. He continues:
“Today, the Argentinean state that is engaged in the recovery of the Malvinas is in the hands of the direct or indirect agents of the powers that oppress our nation. What can be the real extent of an act of sovereignty when the country that undertakes it (and the government that executes it) is politically dominated by the agents of national oppression? The obvious conclusion is that the priority is a different one: to smash first the internal reaction, break the links of submission (economic and diplomatic) and build a powerful internal anti-imperialist and revolutionary front, based on the workers. The priority of a real national struggle is to break the internal front of reaction and build the revolutionary front of the masses. That is what happened in all the great national emancipatory revolts: the French, Russian, Chinese and Cuban Revolutions.
“Vis-a-vis the fundamental priorities of the struggle for national liberation, the occupation of the Malvinas is a distractionist move, which the dictatorship intends to capitalize internally and internationally in the interests of the Argentinean exploiters and the imperialist bourgeoisies that ‘protect’ them.”
See Malvinas: In Order to Fight Against Imperialism, No Support Whatsoever for the Dictatorship (5 April 1982, Política Obrera N° 328 Magazine Internacionalismo, Year II, No 5, August-October 1982) http://www.po.org.ar/english/malvinas.htm
Comrade Altamira makes some very interesting points about the real aims of the Junta. One month before the occupation of the Malvinas, the newspaper "La Prensa" (3/3/82) gave extensive information about the character and the aims of the operation. "According to the Argentinean sources we had access to, the US government would have expressed its "understanding" vis-à-vis the new position of Buenos Aires, as well as its conviction that the recovery of the Malvinas for Argentina constitutes, at this point in time, almost a condition sine qua non for the establishment of an adequate Western defence structure in the South Atlantic, able to withstand Soviet penetration in the area, dissipate the long-standing tensions on the Beagle straits between Argentina and Chile, which is nowadays being mediated by the Vatican; a mediation whose resolution could depend on the stronger or weaker strategic or geopolitical position of Argentina in the whole southern region, not only in the Beagle. Both issues appear to be intimately linked, not only from the point of view of general military and economic security, but as in regard to the diplomatic interests of the Catholic Church. As to Washington, everybody agrees that the recovery of the Malvinas by Argentina would perhaps open the doors for the creation of joint military bases in the islands, or the leasing of bases to the US, with a much greater capability of control over the whole area than any defence position in the Beagle, whether it belongs to Argentina, Chile or any other Western country (by the way these are not mutually exclusive categories)."
"According to our sources," continues La Prensa, "the Argentine plans also extend to eventual British interests going beyond those specifically concerning the inhabitants of the islands, which in any case would receive the most generous terms regarding their property, cultural and political status, free access to all Argentinean facilities, and even special economic compensations. On this point, it was even pointed out to us that Buenos Aires would be willing to offer British Petroleum and other British enterprises a share in the exploitation of hydrocarbon and other resources in wide areas of the region, as well as facilities for its navy, in such a way that the return of sovereignty over the islands would not in any way diminish, but on the contrary increase, Great Britain's perspectives in the Southern Atlantic. Undoubtedly, this attitude aims not only at reaching a pacific solution to the conflict, but also to consolidate the tacit support of the US if a military clash should take place, with the aim of easing as far as possible Washington's frictions with its ’cousins’ and allies in NATO."
This analysis was corroborated by La Nación the following day (4/3/82): "American diplomacy is trying to determine whether that renewed effort of Argentina to recover possession of the Malvinas Islands is related to the growing internationalisation of the American continental situation.
"The rearmament of Venezuela, the announcement of the first naval manoeuvres of NATO in the Gulf of Mexico and the search for new US bases on the West coast of the Caribbean are expressions of the new dimension attributed to the defence of the continent.
"This coincides with the unexpected and vigorous effort in favour of a prompt solution of the conflict over the possession of the archipelago which controls the austral naval routes. Englishmen have been there for more than a century, but their navy has been shrinking due to the heavy budgetary problems of the United Kingdom.
"The US Navy, besides, thinks that the Cuban fleet, though small, constitutes a threat to the continental routes. The Cuban ships cannot operate in the Southern Atlantic but their activity in the Caribbean can interfere with the efforts of the US navy in the austral passages.
"That would be even more ominous in the case of a potential crisis in the India Ocean, which is one of the scenarios of the US naval strategists.
"America diplomatic sources point out that to these elements should be added what they perceive as the excellent military relations between Argentina and the US.
"Although clearly Washington always attempts to stay clear of the Malvinas question, the new circumstances could lead to a revision of its position, or at least encourage Argentina to force that change.
"...The news media doubts that the sale of planes to Venezuela, the search for bases in the Caribbean and the first military manoeuvres of NATO in the region are isolated facts.
" What is not doubted by anyone is that Washington places the question of the defence of its continental allies in a global perspective that could lead it to persuade Great Britain to solve the irritating southern conflict with its key allies."
"The impression among diplomatic circles is that while there are no formal elements with which to determine what is happening, something may be happening. Neither Argentina nor the United States are at ease, and, moreover, they are not acting in tandem.”
So there we have it! The Junta in Buenos Aires, far from planning a war against imperialism, was involved in manoeuvres with US imperialism to secure the handing over of the islands to Argentina in order to strengthen the stranglehold of imperialism in the strategically important South Atlantic. They hoped to arrive at a compromise with British imperialism, whose interests would be safeguarded, as the article points out: “Buenos Aires would be willing to offer British Petroleum and other British enterprises a share in the exploitation of hydrocarbon and other resources in wide areas of the region, as well as facilities for its navy, in such a way that the return of sovereignty over the islands would not in any way diminish, but on the contrary increase, Great Britain's perspectives in the Southern Atlantic.”
In what way these reactionary intrigues could be mistaken for a “war of national liberation” it is very hard to see. The Junta was not planning to fight imperialism but, as faithful office boys of imperialism, to arrive at a secret agreement with London to secure the handing over of the islands. Unfortunately for them, they miscalculated and the whole plot unravelled. They found themselves in a war which they did not want and which they lost. The US imperialists, who backed the dictatorship and its intrigues, was forced to abandon the Junta in order to avoid a conflict with London.
Comrade Altamira concludes: “All this information must be linked to a more general problem: foreign policy is the continuation of internal policy; and the internal and foreign policy of Galtieri-Alemann is one of submission to imperialism. That is why, whatever the derivations of the international crisis, as a result of the contradictions an alliance between Yankees and Englishmen, and between the dictatorship and both of them, the occupation of the Malvinas is not part of a policy of national liberation or independence, but a simulacrum of nation sovereignty, because it limits itself to territorial issues, while its social content continues to be pro-imperialist. The national state is formally sovereign in the whole continental territory of Argentina, yet this by no means precludes the fact that, due to its economic and international policy, it is subjugated to imperialism.
“To consider the recovery of Malvinas as an isolated act of sovereignty, and, even worse, to hide the active negotiations with imperialism by the dictatorship in order to integrate the occupation of the islands into a pro-imperialist strategy, is to let oneself be misled, consciously or unconsciously, by bourgeois demagogy.”
Further: “Whatever the course of events,” wrote comrade Altamira, “it is clear that the occupation of the Malvinas is not the axis of national liberation. The dictatorship has had recourse to it in order to find a way out of its deep internal crisis and impasse.”
This could not be clearer or more correct. Jorge Altamira is to be congratulated on the stand he took over the invasion of the Malvinas. What was necessary was to resist all attempts to mislead the workers, consciously or unconsciously, by bourgeois demagogy. That was the case then, and it is the case now. And if it was bourgeois demagogy twenty-two years ago to present the reactionary adventure of the Junta as a “war of national liberation”, then it remains equally wrong today.
Finally, comrade Altamira says: “If war breaks out, not out of demagogic patriotism but out of authentic anti-imperialism we say: war to the death, revolutionary war against imperialism. That means not only a naval war in the South, but an attack on the imperialist properties in the entire national territory, confiscation of foreign capital and, above all, the arming of the people.”
It was correct to pose the question in terms of an anti-imperialist struggle, to base oneself on what was progressive in the instincts of the masses and to try to impart to the war a genuinely anti-imperialist content, above all by demanding the expropriation of the property of the imperialists, which
Galtieri naturally refused to do. Altamira writes:
“On Friday 2 from the Bank of London alone deposits for more than 10 million dollars were withdrawn. Only after Thatcher froze the Argentinean funds in London did the dictatorship implement a ridiculous control of foreign exchange, which does not prevent the flight of capital through the black market, or the support of the economic boycott by the capitalists of other imperialist nations. The dictatorship is already capitulating.”
And he concludes:
“Given the overall present situation and the attempts to drag the workers to tail-end and support the dictatorship, we declare that it is necessary to maintain the workers' and anti-imperialist independence, with a precise program:
1) To denounce the attempt to capitulate before imperialism, whether by sell-out negotiations on the economy and foreign policy, or by the withdrawal of troops in exchange for the gradual and conditioned return of the archipelago to Argentina.
2) To demand the intervention against all the foreign capital that is already sabotaging or speculating against the national economy.
3) In case of war, to extend it all over the country, attacking and confiscating big imperialist capital and, above all, calling for the arming of the workers.
4) Immediate satisfaction of all the demands of the unions and the other workers' organizations; satisfaction of the demands of movement of the mothers and relatives of the desaparecidos [the missing, the 30,000 people killed by the dictatorship].
5) The fight for the formation of an anti-imperialist united front that will struggle for the implementation of this programme in actual practice.”
All these demands are excellent, as is the final conclusion: “The working class must be conscious of this, because if it is blinded in the face of the situation, the change of regime will take place at its own cost. That is why the demand for unlimited political democracy and a sovereign Constituent Assembly retains its full validity.”
This goes to the essence of the question: above all in a war situation the working class must not allow itself to be blinded by the pressures of patriotism and “national unity”, but maintain its class independence. Incidentally, in that situation, where Argentina was under a dictatorship and no democratic rights existed, the democratic demands would necessarily occupy a central position – including the demand for a Constituent Assembly. That was correct then, because it flowed from the whole situation. It is not correct today because it does not.
The position of the British Marxists
We have pointed out the position taken by comrade Altamira in 1982. What position was taken by the British Marxists? Luis Oviedo says we supported British imperialism and took a chauvinist position against Argentines in general (“Argies out!”). This is what Ted Grant wrote at the time, concerning the tasks of the Argentine Marxists:
“In Argentina, the role of Marxists must be skilfully to oppose the war. They will expose the inconsistencies of the Junta, showing the mess which the capitalist officer caste have made of the economy. The Junta has, temporarily, been able to divert the Argentine masses on nationalist lines. But the Marxists will demonstrate the incapacity of the officer caste to fight a revolutionary war, without which it is virtually ruled out that Argentina could defeat Britain, which is still a relatively powerful imperialist power. Why does the Junta fight with kid gloves? The Argentine capitalists, on whose interests the Junta rests, are linked to American and British finance capital. Marxists in the Argentine will demand the expropriation, first of British investments, and then of all foreign capital in the country.
“They will demand that Argentina be handed back to the Argentines: that is the expropriation of both landed and industrial capital. They will show the privileges and incompetence of the rotten upper strata of the officer caste, and their military incompetence. Without the genuine planning of industry, and fair rationing and distribution of goods for all, it would be impossible to wage an effective war. The Marxists would criticise the entirely selfish aims of the Junta and the Argentine capitalists, whose aim, if they hold the Falklands, would be to reap profits, as junior partners of American imperialism, at the expense of the working class. The Marxists would explain that victory over the powerful imperialist Britain could not be gained by military means, especially under the direction of the totalitarian Junta, but only through political and social means. An overthrow of the Junta by the workers and the establishment of a socialist Argentina would be the most powerful weapon against all imperialism, especially British and American. The Argentine working class could then appeal to the labour movement and the workers and soldiers of Britain. The workers of Argentina would then suggest a socialist federation of Argentina, the Falklands, and of a socialist Britain. “A socialist government in the Argentine would then point out that the Falklands issue has been magnified out of all proportion by generations of Argentine capitalists for their own ends. They would appeal to the workers of all Latin America to overthrow the economic yoke of capitalism and imperialism, and to overthrow their own Juntas, and to prepare for a socialist federation of Latin America. The Junta's aims cannot be the aims of the working class, either in home or foreign policy. For the capitalists, war will be profitable. For the workers and soldiers, the war will mean bloodshed and suffering. In the course of a long war, if the present conflict were to be prolonged, Marxist ideas of this sort would receive enormous support in Argentina and throughout Latin America. The overthrow of the Junta would mark the beginning of a socialist revolution in Argentina, though because of the absence of a Marxist leadership it would in the beginning take a distorted Peronist form”. (The Falklands Crisis - A Socialist Answer, by Ted Grant, May 1982.)
Now where does this position differ from that of Jorge Altamira? Fundamentally, there is no difference. Yet Luis Oviedo persists in the myth that we had an “imperialist” position. Really, there are none so blind as those who will not see.
The question of the ‘kelpers’
Having read with pleasure the writings of Jorge Altamira of 1982, we return with some trepidation to the writings of Luis Oviedo in 2004. He continues to bore away like a dentist’s drill:
"Woods prostitutes the right to self-determination of the peoples by placing it at the service of the reinforcement of colonial oppression. But since for the Marxists every national demand is subordinate to the proletarian revolution, his defense of 'self-determination of the Kelpers' should have led him to raise a 'workers government of the Falklands', something which evidently he did not do because it would have placed in evidence the complete ridiculousness of his positions.
"These supporters of 'colonial socialism' are the ones who attack the Partido Obrero.” (My emphasis)
We will reply to this rubbish as politely as we can. In the first place, Comrade Oviedo does not pose the question of self-determination in a Marxist way. He is indignant at our alleged defence of the “kelpers”, as he calls the inhabitants of the Islands. Because we raise the question of the rights of the islanders as one of the elements in the equation (not necessarily the most important one) he accuses us of being “advocates of colonial socialism”.
Let us speak clearly, so that even Luis Oviedo can understand what we are saying: to us it is a matter of indifference to who these islands belong. The British working class has no interests in maintaining Britain’s control over them. Our first duty was to fight against our own bourgeoisie – to oppose the reactionary policies of the Thatcher government. At no time, either directly or indirectly did we support the war. Let me go further: for any British Marxist to have supported this war would have been a betrayal.
Comrade Oviedo assumes that the position of the British Marxists in relation to the war was determined by the position of the “kelpers”. This is very far from the case. We are well aware that the imperialists always make use of small peoples for their own reactionary purposes. The British imperialists were not interested in the opinions of the people who live on the islands, and in fact were preparing to hand them over to Argentina before the Junta invaded, as Ted Grant pointed out:
“Thatcher and the Tories pretend that the Falkland Islanders and their wishes are their first consideration. In reality, it is the last thing they are concerned about. If it were in the interests of British imperialism, they would sacrifice the interests of the Islanders without blinking an eyelid. It is the prestige of British imperialism and the prospect of exotic riches in the Antarctic, not the interests of the Islanders, which determine the policy of the Tory Government”. (The Falklands Crisis - A Socialist Answer, by Ted Grant, May 1982.)
The question of the “kelpers” did not in any way affect our analysis of the war as an imperialist war on the part of Britain, as we explained at great length. On the other hand, the fact that there was a military dictatorship in Buenos Aires also did not alter our view of the war, any more than the existence of the Nazi regime in Germany changed the imperialist nature of the Second World War. In both cases, the British Marxists took the position that the war was an imperialist war. I hope that is now sufficiently clear.
The point is, however, that the British imperialists cynically used the crimes of the Junta and the oppression of the inhabitants of the islands as a pretext for sending the fleet. We were obliged to answer these arguments, which had a certain effect on the masses in Britain. There was actually no enthusiasm for the war in Britain. But the argument that a fascist dictatorship was oppressing the islanders had an effect, and had to be answered.
How should we answer this? We said: it is true that the Junta is a monstrous regime. But the British ruling class were in favour of this regime. They were the best of friends until the invasion, when Thatcher and co. suddenly “discovered” that it was a fascist dictatorship that tortured and murdered people. We can have no confidence in the Tories and the ruling class. We said to the Labour leaders: break the united front with the Tories. We demanded a general election, and put forward the slogan: Labour to power on a socialist programme.
We said to the British workers: yes, the Junta is also our enemy. But the British imperialists cannot defend the interests of the working class anywhere. Let the working class take power into its hands and then we will be in a position to fight a revolutionary war against the Junta. We will appeal to our brothers and sisters in Argentina to rise against the dictatorship and we will help them. Moreover, we will propose a socialist federation of Britain and Argentina to unite the two peoples. The question of the Malvinas can then be amicably settled on a free and voluntary basis.
Luis Oviedo has a good laugh at the idea of a revolutionary war. He is clearly not aware that this was Lenin’s position in World War One. The Bolsheviks had the position of revolutionary defeatism for Russia. They refused to support the imperialist war and instead advocated revolution. Lenin ceaselessly explained to the Russian workers and peasants that the main enemy was at home. But as early as 1915 Lenin pointed out that if the Russian workers came to power, then the nature of the war would change. A Russian workers’ republic would be entiteld to wage a revolutionary war against the Kaiser’s Germany. In such a case it would be permissible for the Red Army to come to the aid of the German revolution by military means. Let us also recall that Trotsky was in favour of the Red Army intervening against Germany after the victory of Hitler.
The idea of a revolutionary war was inscribed on the banner of the Bolshevik Party before 1917. Of course, the prior condition for this was that the Russian workers should take power. We raised the perspective of a workers’ government in Britain that would wage a revolutionary war against the Junta, while making an appeal to the Argentine working class to rise. Under such conditions, we said, we could agree to fight the Junta, but under the bourgeoisie, never. This was exactly the same as the idea that Lenin advanced in 1915-16.
Comrade Oviedo talks a lot about the right of self-determination but at no time does he say what that right consists of. The right of self-determination is for people, not for rocks. We cannot support every military adventure launched by the bourgeois of former colonial countries to seize land and sources of raw materials. Luis Oviedo complains that we described the invasion of the Malvinas as an annexation. Well, what else was it, when the entire population of the Islands was opposed to it? A liberation? What kind of a liberation is it that abolishes every democratic right that was enjoyed by these people, reducing them to the same servitude that was “enjoyed” by the rest of the Argentine nation? What a mockery!
Now may we be permitted a question? What does Luis Oviedo suggest should be done with the population of the Malvinas? To this question he gives no answer. It is not true that our attitude to the war was determined by this question. That would be completely incorrect. But is it correct on the part of Argentina to ignore the rights of these people and trample them underfoot? Such a suggestion would be contrary to the letter and the spirit of proletarian internationalism. The answer is very simple. On a capitalist basis, an equitable solution to the national question is not possible. It necessarily involves the violation of the rights of one or another national group. Only the working class can bring about a fair and democratic solution to the national problem by taking power. That is the only solution.
We denounced Thatcher’s military adventure in the South Atlantic and systematically exposed the hypocrisy of the British ruling class, which had excellent relations with the Junta until the latter invaded the Islands, and only then discovered that the Junta was “fascist” and killed and tortured people. Thatcher and her cronies were not interested in the fate of the inhabitants of the islands, but used this demagogically to influence the British people to accept the need for war. Therefore, we were obliged to take this question into account in our public propaganda.
Ah! says Luis. But why did Woods not demand the withdrawal of the British army from the Malvinas, in order to give independence to the inhabitants of the Islands? This is a very peculiar mode of argument. In the first place, nobody has ever said that the inhabitants of the Malvinas are a nation, or argued that they can form an independent state. In the second place, let us recall that Marxists are not obliged to defend independence, but only the right to self-determination – that is to say, the right of a given people to decide whether they live within the frontiers of a given state.
As far as the inhabitants of the Islands are concerned, all that we can say is that they should have the right to decide freely in which state they wish to live. “But they will decide to stay British” Luis will complain. Maybe so. But then there is not much Luis Oviedo can do about it. But such an outcome is not at all certain. A capitalist Argentina, of course, will have no appeal to the people of the islands. But a socialist Argentina would be quite a different matter.
The working class, as Lenin explained, demands a democracy that rules out the forcible retention of any group of people within the boundaries of one state. That is precisely the basis of the Leninist principle of the right of self-determination. The idea that it is acceptable to forcibly annex a group of people against their will is an abomination that has nothing in common with Marxism-Leninism. That applies to the English-speaking inhabitants of the Malvinas as much as to anyone else.
Comrade Oviedo thinks himself very smart, but in reality he only stumbles into new errors and contradictions at every step. The demand for the withdrawal of troops would arise in a normal colonial situation, where the population felt themselves oppressed by a foreign army of occupation. But this is not a normal colonial situation. The people of the Islands, confronted with the reality of a brutal military occupation by a dictatorial regime predictably reacted against Argentine rule. They preferred the presence of British soldiers to that prospect. Is this surprising? With 30,000 victims of the Junta, one must admit that it is not.
Opposition to colonial rule is opposition to national oppression. But at the time of the invasion, the population of the islands was wholly British. If there had been an Argentine minority on the islands that was being oppressed, we would have to have taken this into account. But at the time of the invasion there was not a single Argentine living on the islands. To draw an analogy with the French colons in Algeria is false, because the colons were a minority of the population, the majority of which was made up of oppressed Arabs. This was entirely different to the situation that existed in the Malvinas on the eve of the invasion.
The Islanders were not a colonially oppressed population. On the contrary, they were afraid that they would be oppressed by the Junta, and these fears were well founded, since the Junta was oppressing its own people. In whose interests was it to deprive these people of their most elementary rights? What was progressive in enslaving the people who lived on these islands? And who would have benefited if the Junta had succeeded in its military adventure? These concrete questions are not even considered by Luis Oviedo. His wisdom begins and ends with the bare assertion: “The Malvinas belong to Argentina.”
Let us accept for the sake of argument that this is the case. How can we get the Malvinas to unite with Argentina? By force? Apart from the fact that the forcible incorporation of people in a state to which they do not wish to belong has never been the position of Marxists, the military solution has been tried and has failed. Twenty two years later the Malvinas remain firmly under British control and no change in the situation is in sight. All the fulminating and patriotic flag waving in the world will not change this. What does the PO suggest to solve the problem? Nothing. And this is hardly surprising, since on a capitalist basis no solution is possible.
The truth is always concrete. Socialists (and even consistent democrats) stand for the solution of national disputes by a voluntary union of the peoples. But on the present basis, there is nothing attractive for the people of the islands in the idea of joining Argentina. Politically, after the experience of 1982, no government in London could agree to the handover of the islands to Argentina while the islanders were against it. The only way to convince the people of the Islands to join with Argentina is for the Argentine workers to take power into their own hands and establish a workers’ democracy. That would open the way to a voluntary federation. There are many advantages for the Islanders in such an arrangement. Once they were convinced that their rights and language were not being threatened, they would willingly accept union. And from a Marxist point of view, a voluntary union is the only kind of union we are interested in.
Marxism and self-determination
The bourgeois nationalists in the former colonial countries are always trying to beat the drum for “national unity”. They try to argue that the working class must set aside its interests and join them in the alleged “struggle against imperialism” – which they are incapable of waging. One of the main arguments is that we must have an immediate, “practical” solution – which usually means war.
On this Lenin wrote: “The bourgeoisie, which naturally comes out as the hegemon (leader) at the start of every national movement, says that the support of all national aspirations is practical. But the policy of the proletariat in the national question (as in other questions) supports the bourgeoisie only in order to secure national peace (which the bourgeoisie cannot bring about completely and which can be achieved only with complete democracy), in order to secure equal rights and to create the best conditions for the class struggle. Therefore, it is against the practicality of the bourgeoisie that the proletarians advance their principles in the national question; they always give the bourgeoisie only conditional support. In national affairs the bourgeoisie always strives either for privileges for its own nation or exceptional advantages for it; and this is called being ‘practical’. The proletariat is opposed to all privileges, to all exceptionalism. To demand that it should be “practical” is to trail in the wake of the bourgeoisie, to fall into opportunism.” (Lenin, The right of Nations to Self-Determination, pp. 77-78. February-May, 1914.)
Note that Lenin says that there are certain conditions in which it is permissible for the working class of colonial or semi-colonial countries to give conditional support to the bourgeoisie. What conditions is Lenin talking about here? It is very clear that he is talking about the national liberation struggle against imperialism, the struggle of oppressed peoples for self-determination and national independence.
The British Marxists always consistently stood for the freedom of the colonies held by British imperialism in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. That was our internationalist duty, and we performed it rigorously in every case. The accusation that we were in some way “colonial socialists” is simply laughable.
The defence of the right of self-determination was, and remains, our position. The defence of the right to self-determination is not conditioned by the nature of the regime. We defended Abyssinia against Mussolini’s Italy, despite the reactionary feudal regime of Haili Selassi. The Abyssinian people were fighting a war of national liberation against foreign enslavement. Even if the occupying power were democratic, instead of fascist, Marxists would have had to support Abyssinia.
The same was the case of Brazil in the 1930s, which some people have erroneously cited as a parallel with the case of the Malvinas war. Trotsky explained that Marxists would have to support Brazil against British imperialism, although it was ruled by the fascist regime of Vargas.
Is it correct to draw an analogy with what Trotsky wrote in the 1930s about Brazil and the Malvinas war? At that time Trotsky was considering the possibility of an act of aggression by British imperialism against Brazil, involving the invasion and colonial enslavement of Brazil by Britain. In such circumstances, Trotsky explained, the Marxists would have to defend Brazil, even though it was under a fascist dictatorship. All this is correct and ABC for Marxists.
But was this the case in the war of 1982 between Britain and Argentina? Was this really a war to conquer, occupy and colonially enslave Argentina? It was not. The nature of the occupation of the Malvinas by the Junta has been very well explained by Jorge Altamira, and there is very little to be added to what he has said. This was a reactionary war on both sides. It did not benefit the workers of either Britain or Argentina. Therefore, to demand that we should have supported one group of bandits against another is entirely incorrect.
The war was a reactionary, imperialist war on the part of Britain, and the duty of the British Marxists was therefore to oppose their own bourgeoisie. For their part, the Argentine Marxists had the duty to oppose the Argentine bourgeoisie and its agents in the Junta. To demand, in this concrete case, that the British Marxists ought to have gone further and supported Argentina is incorrect and an impermissible concession to social chauvinism. In this particular case, there was nothing to choose between the two sides.
The case of the invasion of Iraq was entirely different. Iraq has been invaded and occupied by US and British imperialism on behalf of the giant American corporations that wish to plunder its oil wealth. We therefore immediately took the position of opposing the imperialist war, for the unconditional withdrawal of all foreign troops: let the Iraqi people decide their own future! That is the only possible policy. But what has this got to do with the war of 1982?
While insisting on the right of nations to self-determination, Lenin and Trotsky also fought against nationalist philistinism – especially among the workers of oppressed nations. But all too often national philistinism is just what we find among certain so-called Trotskyists who have never assimilated the essence of the teachings of Lenin and Trotsky. Lenin explained that on all the serious matters, it is class, not national, affiliation that decides.
Just as the bourgeoisie always subordinates the “national interest” to its own class interests, so the proletariat always places the class struggle before the national question. This idea was already expressed by Marx when he wrote that the national question is always subordinate to the labour question. The Argentine bourgeois is far closer to the British imperialists than their own working class. The “anti-imperialism” of the bourgeoisie is a lie and a deception. This is what must be explained. But how can it be explained if the question is always posed in simplistic terms as “Argentina versus Britain”?
What attitude did the British Marxists take to this war? Firstly, implacable opposition to the war, secondly, an exposure of the hypocrisy of British imperialism. Far from the caricature presented by Luis Oviedo, we consistently combated all the vile anti-Argentine propaganda in the media (“Argies out” and so on), and pointed out that the interests of the British and Argentine workers were the same. Luis Oviedo and others in Argentina try to imply that we were somehow “neutral”. That is utter nonsense. The British Marxists did their duty. We denounced the war as an imperialist war from start to finish. We opposed our own bourgeoisie. We consistently denounced the reactionary actions of Thatcher and the British imperialists. We also denounced the Labour leaders for their collaboration with the Tories. That was all that could be demanded of us in the circumstances.
Comrade Altamira at first took the same position as we did. But can it be said that the Argentine Trotskyists have consistently maintained an internationalist position? The arguments of Luis Oviedo give us serious doubts on this question. Running through them is a very clear element that is not at all in the spirit of Marxism but very much in line with that of Argentine nationalism.
Unfortunately, at the time of the Malvinas war, many Argentine Marxists allowed themselves to be carried away by the prevailing mood in society – a mood of patriotic intoxication that was deliberately whipped up by the Junta for its own ends. The intoxication of the masses can be understood, and in any case was only a temporary condition. But it is a bad business when Marxists allow themselves to be influenced by such moods and allow these passing moods of the masses to dictate their policy. Above all in time of war it is necessary to stand against the prevailing tide of chauvinism and “patriotic” demagogy.
London, February 17, 2004