In the three articles that Luis Oviedo has written in answer to my article published on January 7 (Marxism versus Sectarianism - Reply to Luis Oviedo) a number of very important issues are raised. These questions deserve the most careful consideration by Marxists in Britain, Argentina and internationally. However, in order to clarify the issues raised and to educate the cadres (which ought to be the aim of every polemic) it is necessary to avoid heated language, distortions and personal attacks that only serve to divert attention away from the political questions. Such an approach will only confuse matters instead of clarifying them.
It is far better to have a calm and reasonable debate, where all the political differences are brought out clearly. Anyone who checks our web site will immediately see that this is our usual method. We should remind Luis Oviedo of the fact that when we first entered into (or attempted to enter into) a dialogue with the PO our tone was a very friendly one. Unfortunately, the tone adopted by Luis Oviedo in his latest articles is not the kind of tone that encourages an honest exchange of views.
In the subheading to the introduction to my article On the constituent assembly slogan: Is it applicable to Argentina? there is a section called On revolutionary tactics in Argentina: The need for a dialogue. Here we read:
"We are well aware of the role that the Trotskyists have played in the movement in Argentina, and it goes without saying that we celebrate their successes as our own […]
"The role of the PO in the process is obviously a significant element in the equation, and we follow it with great interest. On many points of the programme defended by the PO we find ourselves in agreement. However, we believe that some questions require further clarification – in particular, the slogan of the constituent assembly.
"Of course, it is important that we do not exaggerate differences, and that we should eliminate misunderstandings."
The whole article was written in the same friendly tone. If there is any doubt on this score, I refer you to the original article.
We later wrote articles about the Constituent Assembly slogan in which we warned that this slogan could have disastrous consequences for the revolution. I received several e-mails, all of them commenting favourably on the friendly and comradely tone of my criticism. We have never called the PO leaders counterrevolutionaries. We have never called into question their personal sincerity or their dedication to the cause of socialism. We consider that they have made a mistake, that is all. Everyone is entitled to make a mistake. But a revolutionary Marxist leadership ought to have sufficient confidence in itself to answer criticism with a reasoned argument, not a torrent of insults.
We say this, not because we are worried about such insults. The present writer has spent the last 43 years fighting capitalism, imperialism and reaction. I have personal experience of the underground struggle against the Franco dictatorship in Spain and was in Chile in the hardest period of the Pinochet reaction and in the USSR at the time of Stalinist totalitarianism. I am therefore not likely to be bothered by a few stupid insults. But, as a Marxist, I consider it immoral to try to avoid a serious discussion by creating a smoke screen of confusion. Nobody can learn anything from such a "debate".
Luis Oviedo is one of the main theoreticians of the PO. His approach to political discussion, however, suggests that the leaders of the PO are afraid to discuss ideas. They appear to be mainly concerned with prestige and maintaining a sense of the infallibility of the leadership. They were offended by our criticisms. This is a very bad way to approach political questions. When one makes a mistake, it is necessary to recognize it honestly, analyse it and correct it. If the leadership is not honest about its mistakes, it will miseducate the membership and prepare the way for bigger mistakes in future.
When I wrote, in the article on Bolivia, I said that the content of the Constituent Assembly slogan was counterrevolutionary. What did this mean? Not that the advocates of this slogan were themselves counterrevolutionaries (it is possible for an honest person to make mistakes) but that the slogan of the Constituent Assembly (CA) can under certain circumstances serve as a cover for the counterrevolution in a democratic form. In the case of Bolivia, this slogan is now being supported by Evo Morales and by all the bourgeois politicians. Even the representative of the World Bank in Bolivia supports this slogan. Bolpress, February 13, 2004 reports:
"A study made by the World Bank points out that there is the possibility that president Carlos Mesa will not finish his constitutional mandate which is set until 2007, although it points out that his great potential lies in his political agenda which includes the Constituent Assembly, a new gas agreement and the Hydrocarbons Law."
It is therefore clear to everyone that the forces of the counterrevolution in Bolivia are now rallying behind the slogan of the Constituent Assembly – clear to everyone, that is, except the leaders of the PO.
How did the PO leaders respond to a reasonable political criticism? Luis Oviedo published an article entitled The Counterrevolutionary Policies of Socialist Appeal. Instead of answering us politically, they have launched a barrage of insults, raising every question imaginable – and some quite unimaginable. But they do not answer any of the points we have raised.
Why does comrade Oviedo launch such furious attacks against us? Why does he raise the question of the Malvinas (where he shows he does not understand our position), Ireland (which he understands even less) and a hundred other questions? Only to create a smokescreen, to confuse the issue and to avoid an honest discussion of the PO's mistaken policy on the Constituent Assembly.
These unprecedented attacks were published in the PO web site in both English and Spanish. It was therefore inevitable that we would reply, and that the reply would be a sharp one. Luis Oviedo now complains that he is being called a liar and a falsifier. But then he should take more care when he quotes from the writings of opponents. Comrade Oviedo really has no right to complain about the tone of the reply, which, under the circumstances, was extremely restrained. In any case, I think that members of the PO who are interested in the substance of the political differences will be able to ignore the form and penetrate the content.
In addition to systematically distorting our position, he permits himself the liberty of using the grossest possible insults. That is always the way with sensitive souls. They reserve the right to slander and insult all who do not agree with them, while protesting loudly when those they attack dare to reply. For our part, we do not mind their insults. The Bolshevik Party was, after all, "the school of hard knocks".
One thing must be admitted: from the writings of Luis Oviedo one always learns something new. From the article to which I replied last December I learned that I was a counterrevolutionary. In his latest articles that are intended as a reply to the reply I discover that I am not only a counterrevolutionary but also a monarchist, a war-monger, a colonialist and an imperialist. Moreover, it would appear that in my spare time I am in the habit of parading up and down the streets of London, wrapped in a British flag, shouting "Argies get out!" I am grateful to Luis for pointing this out to me, since, without reading his articles, I would never have learned these things about myself.
From the indignant tone of his reply, I fear that comrade Oviedo was offended by some of the things I wrote. I regret this very much. I would like us to be friends, and to understand one another. If my article caused Luis some distress, I apologise unreservedly. I hope this will enable Luis Oviedo to stop protesting and answer at least some of the points we have raised.
Luis complains repeatedly about the length of my reply, and has even used a function on his computer to check the number of characters. This reminds me of the Austrian monarch who complained to Mozart that his music contained too many notes. Luis finds that my reply had too many words (and far, far too many quotes). However, one cannot deal seriously with complex questions in a few sentences, in which rational argument is replaced by distortions and insults. Such a method is really not very scientific, although it is true that one is never bored!
Luis' own articles do not suffer from any of these defects. They are short and to the point – the point being to show that Alan Woods is a counterrevolutionary imperialist and generally a very bad person, with whom all respectable people should have nothing to do. His text is not cluttered up with quotes, for why bother to prove things that are so evident? It is sufficient that these assertions are made ex cathedra – from the pages of Prensa Obrera. This gives them approximately the same weight as an excommunication pronounced by the Pope of Rome. And there the matter ends. This seems to be the usual method with which the leaders of the PO dispose of their critics – both inside and outside the party.
Now we should be very sorry to leave things like this and thereby spoil a beautiful friendship. The members of the PO and all other interested parties wish to see a serious debate about the very serious matters that comrade Oviedo has raised. And a serious debate is impossible if one of the parties persists in presenting a falsification of the views of his opponents. That is what I criticised Luis Oviedo for in my last article. He has taken offence at the criticism, but instead of rectifying, he has repeated the distortions and added a few more for good measure. In order to establish the facts and eliminate some of the confusion, I have no alternative, reluctantly, but to reply at some length. I will also be obliged to include some more quotations.
I do not know why comrade Luis complains about this. A serious polemic is necessarily a lengthy affair. In the first place it is necessary to quote one's opponent accurately and at length. It is also necessary to demonstrate the classical positions of Marxism, and this also requires lengthy quotes. I understand that this habit of mine annoys Luis very much, as he is a busy man and has no time to provide any quotations or facts to back up his arguments. Members of the PO are expected to take his word on everything he says. But I believe it is always better to prove what one is saying – length notwithstanding.
From what he writes, not only has Luis not understood a word of what we have written. He has not even read the articles and documents he so severely criticises. I therefore venture to give my friend Luis a piece of very good advice: if you wish to understand what I am trying to say, please take the trouble to read what I write. That is an excellent way of improving your comprehension!
The purpose of a polemic between Marxists, as I have pointed out, is not to score cheap debating points, but to raise the political level of the cadres. This is my sole intention in replying to comrade Luis. So yet again, I am afraid there will be "too many notes" for his liking. What are we to do? I would like to please Luis Oviedo, but I am also obliged to pay some attention to the facts.
'Arabs and Turks'
In his three articles, Luis has not clarified any of the questions raised, but only introduced new elements of confusion. I will not waste much time dealing with the numerous secondary arguments raised by comrade Oviedo. But there is one detail I feel I cannot omit. The title of Luis' first article is a strange one: "An Arab who lost his way". As a matter of fact, I am not an Arab but a Welshman by birth and a proletarian internationalist by conviction. I have by no means lost my way, but remain very firmly on the ground of revolutionary Marxism.
I find it hard to understand Luis' references to Arabs and Turks. The Arabs and Turks whom I have met have been very pleasant, hospitable and cultured people, with a very rich civilization and literature. To use "Arab" and "Turk" as terms of ridicule seems to me to reveal a mentality that is not at all that of proletarian internationalism. If it is intended as a joke, then it is a joke in very poor taste. At the very least one can say that it smacks of national narrowness. This is not the only example of such nationalist one-sidedness, as we shall see.
Evidently, the confusion about my national status comes from the fact that I prefaced my last article by an old Arab proverb "The dogs bark, therefore the caravan is moving". Luis Oviedo complains that this is not an Arab proverb at all, but is taken from the pages of Don Quixote. Evidently, a person who does not know his Quixote from his Arabs is not to be trusted! As a matter of fact I am fairly well acquainted with Cervantes' masterpiece, which, by coincidence, I recently reread. The quotation my friend is thinking of is (in Spanish) "Ladran, luego cabalgamos", which is not quite the same as the quotation I used. In fact, Cervantes was paraphrasing the Arab proverb.
Cervantes knew the Arabs and Turks very well, being captured in the battle of Lepanto and serving as a galley-slave under Arab masters for some years. Despite this experience, he always had a great respect for the culture of these peoples. He even says that the story of Quixote was written by an Arab. Up to this time, in fact, the Arabs had a higher cultural level than the Christian Spaniards, and their poetry, literature and (dare I say it?) their proverbs, had a profound influence on Spanish literature. Luis Oviedo does not seem to know this. But since there are so many other things he does not know, this need not surprise us.
He also writes that "more than an Arab in a caravan, he [AW] is like a Turk in the mist". Having been in Istanbul on several occasions, I can assure Luis Oviedo that there is no mist to be found there. Nor, contrary to the general belief, is there much fog in London nowadays (since Thatcher closed all the industry). The only fog is the fog in Luis' brain. We will now do our very best to help him to clear it.
Immediate tasks of the Bolivian revolution
The content of the first part of comrade Oviedo's trilogy is even stranger than this. It is entitled "Woods confirms Prensa Obrera", and is merely a repetition of the earlier accusations about our alleged slavish "following of the existing leaders". This foolish accusation was answered in detail in my previous article. I do not feel it is necessary to add anything to what is written there. I suggest that anyone with a reasonable doubt on this should read the material on our website, which would rapidly convince them that this accusation is utterly groundless
He says: "In spite of the length of his 'Reply,' plagued by long quotations, obvious remarks, insults and deprecating remarks against Oviedo and the leadership of the PO, Woods hides the central fact that the COB defended the 'constitutional way out' and the replacement of Sánchez de Lozada by his Vice-President Mesa, just as Morales and Quispe did. This is why we denounced Woods' position that the COB leadership played 'a very positive role'."
We will not repeat here what was said in the last article. We will merely reiterate that there is not a word of truth in the accusation that we uncritically supported the COB leadership. To underline the point, here are a couple of quotations from recent articles on our web site:
"At the end of the COB meeting, its general secretary paid a visit to the new president. But instead of adopting a firm position and demanding from the government the fulfilment of the workers' demands within a given period of time and declaring his complete mistrust of the new government, Solares adopted a conciliatory line". (...)
"This is really a scandalous position which will only cause confusion and disorientation amongst the masses. Luckily, so far, the masses have had a much better instinct than their leaders at all crucial points. How can one imagine that Carlos Mesa will create jobs and sources of well being for the people? That can only be achieved through the abolition of capitalism, something Mesa will never carry out. It is not a question of "good faith" but rather of the crisis of Bolivian capitalism which forces it to maintain the privileges of the ruling class by increasing attacks on the well being and living standards of workers and peasants". (Bolivia: first balance-sheet of the insurrection, "A revolutionary party was missing" by Jorge Martín, October 20, 2003, our emphais).
Where is the uncritical support for the COB leaders that Oviedo claims we have? But before we say anything else, let us see what position the COB leaders are actually putting forward here and now. In his latest article, comrade Jorge Martin writes:
"Already on December 30, the leader of the El Alto Regional Workers Union, Roberto de La Cruz 'questioned the failure of the new government to meet the demands of the people formulated in October and demanded the closing down of parliament'. (Bolpress, 30/12/03.)
"Also the main leader of the COB, Jaime Solares, addressing the Ordinary Congress of the Potosí Departmental Workers Union, made an appeal for ‘strikes, blockades and other measures to paralyse the country's economy in order to fight against a government which only follows US economic recipes' and added that ‘the theory of revolution will be put into practice through the road of insurrection'. In the same statement, quoted by Econoticiasbolivia.com on January 15, Solares pointed out 'that the oligarchy must fall so that the people take power'.
"All these statements, which undoubtedly reflect the pressure and growing impatience of workers and peasants, prepared the way for the decisions of the national enlarged meeting of the COB on Thursday, January 22". (Bolivia is moving towards a third uprising, by Jorge Martín, January 29, 2004).
"It is clear that although there is still some confusion regarding the slogan of a Constituent Assembly, the workers' organisations clearly oppose this manoeuvre of the ruling class when they pose the People's Assembly as an alternative. At the same time the call to close down parliament has a clear class and anti-capitalist content. Thus Solares stated that, ‘the Constituent Assembly will not solve the economic and social crisis, as long as the current capitalist structure remains' and added that, ‘capitalism in the world cannot be maintained without wars, corruption and lies, while in Bolivia this model has destroyed the national economy'. Roberto de la Cruz said that, ‘the people want a legislative power expressing a real participatory democracy and to close down the current bourgeois parliament that does not want to make structural changes and represents a fictitious democracy' (Bolpress, 26/1/04)". (ibid.)
We leave aside for the moment the question of how far the COB will carry out what they threaten and to what extent their actions will correspond to their words. We will just say this: that despite certain elements of confusion, the position publicly advocated by the COB leaders is a hundred times more correct than the PO's demand for a constituent assembly. In the meantime every tendency must immediately define its attitude to the practical tasks posed by the class struggle in Bolivia.
Let us ask a direct question to comrade Luis. Are you not aware that the COB has just called an indefinite general strike? If you did not know we are now pointing it out to you. Moreover, we ask you a straight question: What position does the PO take on this? Do you or do you not support the general strike called by the COB leaders? Do you or do you not consider this a positive development?
Luis Oviedo and the PO leaders are still convinced that the COB leaders only call general strikes in order to betray them! The possibility that, under certain circumstances, the trade union leaders might be pushed by the pressure of the masses to act does not occur to them. They are so used to repeating mechanically "the leaders always betray" that when the leaders actually do call for action, they are left with their mouths open. That is to say, they have not the slightest idea of how the real movement of the workers proceeds. They will therefore never be capable of intervening in it.
But things get from bad to worse, when comrade Oviedo accuses me of supporting not only the COB leaders but also Mesa: "The COB leadership celebrates Mesa's assuming office as a 'peoples triumph' (Woods also celebrates it)…" (My emphasis.)
Where and in what way did we "celebrate" the coming to power of the bourgeois Mesa? Luis Oviedo once again makes an outrageous assertion without a single piece of evidence or quotation to prove it. Anyone who reads our article will see at once that this is a stupid lie. This is what we actually said: "The overthrow of Lozada was the first great success of the Bolivian revolution. But it is too early to shout victory. The most important tasks of the revolution have not been achieved. Its most important battles lie in the future." Moreover: "the army of the proletariat must not be stood down. The war is not over. It has only just begun! In order to guarantee that the most pressing demands of the people will be met, it is necessary to prepare for another general strike – one that will place on the order of the day, not the overthrow of a President, but the overthrow of the corrupt and reactionary Bolivian oligarchy that is blocking the way to progress."
And what was our attitude to Mesa? Luis Oviedo says we celebrated his coming to power. In fact, what we celebrated was the overthrow of Lozada by the masses. But did we also "celebrate" the coming to power of Mesa, as comrade Oviedo alleges? This is what we wrote:
"Despite this cosmetic change, there is no real difference between Mesa and Lozada. It is like a tactical retreat in war. Since the first line of defence has been swept aside by the masses, Mesa is forced to retreat to a second line of defence, to address the masses, and to promise – above all to promise, anything and everything – the sun, the moon and the stars – with one condition: that the masses leave the streets and go home, that 'normality' be restored, that 'law and order' should reign. Once the movement has died down, the oligarchy can go onto the offensive and take back all the concessions." (Bolivia, The key to the Andean revolution, Alan Woods and Jorge Martín, October 22, 2003)
Is this not clear? We pointed out that there was no real difference between Mesa and Lozada. We said that, in pushing Mesa to power, the bourgeoisie was only making a tactical retreat, and that Mesa represented a second line of defence for the ruling class. We warned the masses that nothing was solved and that they must prepare for another general strike, not just to overthrow Mesa but to take power and transform society. Luis nevertheless regards all this as a celebration, but I very much doubt whether Mr. Mesa would be of the same opinion.
We have already explained that critical support for the COB leaders when the latter are actually calling a general strike does not at all mean uncritical support. The Bolivian Marxists must at all times retain their political and organizational independence. But this explanation is not enough for Luis Oviedo. He demands that we shout from the rooftops that the COB is counterrevolutionary! This is what he writes:
"The masses must be told the truth. Not lied to as Woods does. It is such an elementary question which requires no quotations from 1848 or 1932 [Luis, as we know, is allergic to quotes]. The PO tells the masses: the politics of the leadership of the COB was counterrevolutionary."
So this is what the leadership of the PO suggests to the Marxists of Bolivia: They must immediately go before the working class of Bolivia and inform them that the leaders of the COB are counterrevolutionary – and they must do this precisely at the time when these same leaders are calling for an indefinite general strike, with roadblocks and even the closing down of the bourgeois parliament and its replacement by a popular assembly.
The national enlarged meeting of the Bolivian Workers' Union (COB) gathered in Cochabamba on January 22, and decided to call for an indefinite general strike with road blockades in twenty days time if Mesa's government does not concede the demands of the October insurrection and continues with its announced austerity measures. The COB meeting "ended with the decision to take power, by closing down Parliament". (El Diario, January 23, 2004.) This decision marks the end of the truce given by the worker and peasant leaders to Carlos Mesa's government, which came to power after the overthrow of Sanchez de Lozada through an insurrectional general strike in October last year.
In a meeting which took place in the headquarters of the La Paz Urban Teachers' Federation and which lasted for more than ten hours, the COB declared "war against the government". The workers' union decided to "declare a national state of emergency in the whole of the country, to establish and prepare an indefinite strike with mobilisations (to be carried out in 20 days), to plan the basis for the definition of strategy for measures to pressure the government and to establish a political front of struggle against the government" (Econoticiasbolivia.com, January 23, 04). To the demands already made to the government in October they now added the "refounding of Comibol and YPFB [the former publicly owned mining and oil companies] under workers control". (La Razón, January 24, 04).
Comrade Oviedo will remind us that these are only words. Yes, of course, these are only words. But then we should demand that these words should be immediately translated into deeds. Instead of doing what ought to be done: namely energetically supporting the COB's demand for a general strike, roadblocks, etc., and doing everything in their power to carry this into effect, the leaders of the PO recommend that their supporters in Bolivia should attack the COB leaders as counterrevolutionaries!
The sum total of this wisdom can be summed up in a single sentence: one must constantly denounce all other trends as traitors and counterrevolutionaries, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, and fifty two weeks a year. This task must be performed regularly, shouting at the top of one's voice. Then the mass revolutionary party will be built! Such methods as this are not new. They are as old as the hills. This represents the sum total of the wisdom of the sects, like the ideas of the Left Communists that Lenin criticised so severely, and bear an even closer resemblance to the Third Period madness of the Stalinists that Trotsky condemned.
These methods would completely cut us off from the masses in every country. They would spell complete isolation and impotence for the proletarian vanguard. Yet to the leaders of the PO this is the very pinnacle of revolutionary politics. The ultra-lefts have learned nothing and forgotten everything. For such people the writings of Lenin and Trotsky are a book sealed with seven seals. To such people, one can only sigh and shrug one's shoulders. As the Bible says: "as a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly." (Proverbs, xxvi, ii)
What is the purpose of all this denunciation of the COB? Only to draw the readers' attention away from the central question – the slogan of the Constituent Assembly. It goes without saying that we do not accept any responsibility for the policies and conduct of the COB leaders. The Marxist tendency must always maintain its independent political line. Our position in relation to the tasks of the Bolivian revolution is well known. We stand for socialist revolution and workers' power. There is nothing ambiguous about this. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the position of the PO.
The idea that the reformist trade union leaders can never express the aspirations of the workers is pure formalism. The mass organizations by their very nature come under the pressure of the masses. It is true that the upper layers express far more faithfully the pressure of the bourgeoisie. But in a situation when the masses are aroused to struggle, the leaders (even the most bureaucratic and right wing leaders) can come under the pressure of the workers and begin to echo their demands. They can move into semi-opposition to the government, or even outright opposition. Bolivia is a good example of this dialectical relation between the class and the leadership
The line that has been advocated by the COB leadership may not be a finished programme for socialist revolution, but at the very least it is a big step in the right direction. The call for an indefinite general strike and the replacement of the bourgeois parliament with a Popular Assembly is a good starting point. What is needed is to ensure that the words of the leaders do not remain on paper but are put immediately into practice. Therefore, the position of the Bolivian Marxists must be one of critical support. We must support the general strike with all our energy, strive to broaden and deepen the mass movement against the government and give it an organized expression in the form of action committees (soviets). We demand deeds not words!
The COB leaders, in calling for the strike and blockade, are acting under the pressure of the working class and the rank and file of the union. But in turn, by calling the strike, the COB leaders have given an impetus to the movement. This will lead to a further radicalisation of the masses, which in turn can push the leaders further than they wish to go. Only the most thick-headed sectarian could fail to notice this. But the movement can only succeed to the degree that it arouses the broadest layers of the working class and poor peasants.
It is not necessary to have illusions in the COB leadership, to support the strike. We do not know how far the COB leaders will go, because they do not know themselves. It is quite possible that, in the moment of truth, they will become alarmed and retreat. We must be prepared for this, of course. In any case, the success of the general strike – as any other strike – will depend on the degree to which the leadership of the movement comes from below. Therefore the appropriate slogan for Bolivia under present conditions is soviets (although we should use a word that the Bolivian workers will understand). We call on the Bolivian workers to support the general strike, whilst developing and extending their committees of action, linking them up on a local, regional and national level.
Under favourable conditions, this movement could lead to the working class taking power. But the most important condition for victory is the creation of a Marxist party. The Bolivian revolution will be faced with powerful enemies, inside and outside its frontiers. The working class can come to power in Bolivia, but it cannot consolidate that power unless the revolution spreads to the neighbouring countries. The presence of a Marxist leadership, which knows what it wants and how to get it, is of fundamental importance, above all to give the revolution an internationalist perspective.
The conditions for revolution are maturing in a number of countries, beginning with Peru. A militant appeal to the workers of Peru, Chile and the rest of Latin America would have an immediate effect. The imperialists and their allies would find themselves fighting on many fronts. That is the only way to defeat imperialism – by spreading the revolution throughout Latin America. That is why national one-sidedness is impermissible for revolutionaries in Latin America. Not nationalism but only proletarian internationalism can guarantee victory.
But where are the cadres of such a Marxist party to be found? They will not drop from the clouds in Bolivia or any other country. The forces for such a party can only come from the existing mass organizations of the proletariat in Bolivia – that means the COB. Therefore, we must have a correct attitude to this organization. Shrill sectarian denunciations are completely counterproductive. Our advice to the Bolivian Marxists is the same as Lenin's advice to the Bolsheviks in the soviets in 1917: Patiently explain!
Unfortunately, the position of the PO leaders in relation to the Bolivian revolution is wrong from start to finish. It combines elements of ultra-leftism and opportunism in equal measure: on the one hand, hysterical attacks against the COB leaders – at a time when the latter are calling for a general strike – on the other hand, the hopelessly reformist bourgeois democratic slogan of the Constituent Assembly. On this road no progress can be made. If the Bolivian Marxists accept these methods, they will destroy the party before it has even begun to come into existence.
The Constituent Assembly – yet again
As we have explained many times, the slogan of the CA is appropriate for a backward semi-feudal society with a large peasantry or a dictatorial regime. Tsarist Russia fulfilled all these conditions. But the position of Argentina (or Bolivia) has very little in common with Russia a hundred years ago.
One of the main reasons why the Bolsheviks stressed the bourgeois democratic demands was to win over the peasantry. But in Argentina no peasantry exists. What is required is not the division of the big estates to the peasants, but the nationalization of the big capitalist farms and their direct conversion into collectives, as part of a nationalized planned economy. In other words, the objective character of the coming Argentine revolution is socialist, not bourgeois democratic, and it must be brought about by the coming to power of the Argentine proletariat.
In order to cover his backside, Luis Oviedo tries to qualify the demand for a Constituent Assembly by adding the phrase "with power". What does this mean? We cannot imagine that the PO would demand a Constituent Assembly without power. This is meaningless as all the other qualifications they have introduced, like "sovereign" and "independent" (of whom?). The fact remains that the slogan of Constituent Assembly is a bourgeois democratic slogan that is counterposed to workers' power. And no amount of juggling with words will change that.
In Bolivia the position is still clearer. The whole logic of the situation is pushing the workers towards power. In such a situation what is the duty of Marxists? Our duty is to raise before the workers the perspective of taking power. The movement towards a new general strike raises the question of action committees (soviets), not as abstract propaganda but as an urgent and immediate necessity.
The PO attacks the COB leaders in a completely irresponsible and light-minded way, just when they are calling for a general strike. That is stupid and only serves to discredit the Trotskyists. But we are very conscious of the fact that there are grave dangers in the present situation. An indefinite general strike (as opposed to a 24 hour general strike) poses the question of power, but cannot resolve it. It asks the question: "Who is master of this house?" It paralyses the productive forces and makes it impossible for capitalist society to function. But society cannot continue indefinitely in a state of paralysis. The struggle for power must be settled – one way or another.
In a general strike of this character, society is split between two antagonistic powers. One must prevail. The COB leaders have called for an indefinite general strike and the replacement of the bourgeois parliament with a Popular Assembly. This amounts to a call for an insurrection. But this cannot be left in the air. The key to the situation lies in the workers' committees. They must link up and confront the old state as an alternative power. Everything depends on this.
A slogan that under certain conditions can play a progressive role in rallying the backward masses under the banner of revolution, under other conditions can become the rallying point for the forces of reaction. Not to see this is to play the game of the counterrevolution. Incidentally, the counterrevolution can be carried out under the banner of democracy, and this has happened many times in history.
To raise in such a situation the demand for a Constituent Assembly is an entirely false policy that plays into the hands of the bourgeoisie and can shipwreck the revolution. At a moment when the question of workers' power is implicit in the whole situation, it is a diversion, which is why the bourgeois and reformist politicians are all united around the same demand.
Events have entirely vindicated everything we wrote in the past about this slogan. Evo Morales in Bolivia, whom the PO attacks so violently, is now calling for a Popular Constituent Assembly – precisely the same term that Oviedo uses. The Bolivian section of the PO calls for the same thing. The PO says Morales is a traitor, but he is using their slogan. Is this not clear enough?
The PO tries to justify their use of this slogan as a transitional demand. A transitional demand is supposed to act as a bridge between the present consciousness of the masses and the socialist revolution. But in the context of the present situation in both Argentina and Bolivia it is not a bridge to the socialist revolution but a barrier blocking the way to it. That is why the bourgeois and reformist politicians in Bolivia have embraced it so enthusiastically. We predict that tomorrow, when the Argentine bourgeoisie finds itself threatened with overthrow it will act in the same way.
The PO leadership have landed themselves in a mass of contradictions because they have thought out nothing to the end. The fact that all the bourgeois politicians in Bolivia have accepted the CA slogan is proof enough of its reactionary content. As we have seen, even the World Bank accepts it! It really is time to think again. The PO leaders are organically allergic to admitting mistakes. But now the dangers implicit in this incorrect slogan are quite clear. It is time to change course and admit what everyone can see: the CA slogan is the slogan, not of the proletarian dictatorship, but of the counterrevolution in a democratic form – as it also turned out to be in Russia.
The Constituent Assembly slogan in 1917
The PO leaders imagine that, in advocating the slogan of the CA for Argentina and Bolivia, they are faithfully following the line of the Bolshevik Party in 1917. That is not the case. Given the concrete conditions of tsarist Russia, the democratic demands played an important role and therefore the slogan of the CA was included in the programme of the RSDLP along with other bourgeois democratic demands. However, by 1917 this slogan had already outlived its usefulness. It played a very subordinate role and finally a counterrevolutionary one.
In 1917 the Bolshevik leadership was split between the Leninists, who stood for workers' power and the Compromisers (Kamenev, Stalin and Zinoviev) who, in practice, had abandoned the position of socialist revolution in favour of vulgar bourgeois democracy. Only after a sharp struggle, beginning in the April Conference, were the Compromisers defeated. What was the main slogan put forward by the Compromisers to attack the Leninists? The slogan of the Constituent Assembly.
In The History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky describes the scene at the April Conference when Lenin confronted Stalin and Kamenev, who had abandoned the perspective of workers' power in favour of the programme of vulgar bourgeois democracy. It was these Compromisers, and not Lenin, who emphasised the slogan of the CA, which was put forward by the bourgeois in order to divert the revolution into safe channels. To the demands of the workers and peasants for peace, bread and land, they answered: "wait for the Constituent Assembly!" At the April Conference, Lenin fulminated against the Compromisers, accusing them of wasting time and losing the opportunity of taking power:
"On April 4 Lenin appeared at the party conference. His speech, developing his ‘theses', passed over the work of the conference like the wet sponge of a teacher erasing what had been written on the blackboard by a confused pupil.
"‘Why didn't you seize the power?' asked Lenin. At the Soviet conference not long before that, Steklov had confusedly explained the reasons for abstaining from the power: revolution is bourgeois –it is the first stage– the war, etc. ‘That's nonsense,' Lenin said. ‘The reason is that the proletariat was not sufficiently conscious and not sufficiently organised. That we have to acknowledge. The material force was in the hands of the proletariat, but the bourgeoisie was conscious and ready. That is the monstrous fact. But it is necessary to acknowledge it frankly, and say to the people straight out that we did not seize the power because we were unorganised and not conscious.'
"From the plane of pseudo-objectivism, behind which the political capitulators were hiding, Lenin shifted the whole question to the subjective plane. The proletariat did not seize the power in February because the Bolshevik Party was not equal to its objective task, and could not prevent the Compromises from expropriating the popular masses politically for the benefit of the bourgeoisie." (Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, p. 320.)
The Compromisers tried to hide behind the slogan of the CA, which they counterpoised to the dictatorship of the proletariat, but Lenin poured scorn on this, as we see from the following passage:
"The day before that, lawyer Krassikov had said challengingly: ‘If we think that the time has now come to realize the dictatorship of the proletariat, then we ought to pose the question that way. We unquestionably have the physical force for a seizure of power.' The chairman at that time deprived Krassikov of the floor on the ground that practical problems were under discussion, and the question of dictatorship was out of order. But Lenin thought that, as the sole practical question, the question of preparing the dictatorship of the proletariat was exactly in order. ‘The peculiarity of the present moment in Russia,' he said in his theses, ‘consists in the transition from the first stage of the revolution, which gave the power to the bourgeoisie on account of the inadequate consciousness and organization of the proletariat, to its second stage which must give the power to the proletariat and the poor layers of the peasantry.' The conference, following the lead of Pravda, had limited the task of the revolution to a democratic transformation to be realized through the Constituent Assembly. As against this, Lenin declared that ‘life and the revolution will push the Constituent Assembly into the background. A dictatorship of the proletariat exists, but nobody knows what to do with it'." (The History of the Russian Revolution, pp. 320-1, my emphasis.)
The fact is that the slogan of the CA did not play a central role in the propaganda of the Bolsheviks in 1917. The central demand was All Power to the Soviets – that is, the slogan of workers' power. The bourgeoisie and the Compromisers constantly hid behind the slogan of the CA, appealing to the masses to wait for the convening of the latter. In order to unmask them, the Bolsheviks said to the masses: let the soviets take power, that is the only guarantee that the CA will be convened. The fact is that the CA played an entirely secondary role in the lead-up to October, as Trotsky explains on more than one occasion, as in the following passage:
"Not one party had yet withdrawn the slogan of the Constituent Assembly, and this included the Bolsheviks. But almost unnoticeably in the course of the events of the revolution, this chief democratic slogan, which had for a decade and a half tinged with its colour the heroic struggle of the masses, had grown pale and faded out, had somehow been ground between millstones, had become an empty shell, a form naked of content, a tradition and not a prospect. There was nothing mysterious in this process. The development of the revolution had reached the point of a direct battle for power between the two basic classes of society, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. A Constituent Assembly could give nothing either to the one or the other. The petty bourgeoisie of the town and country could play only an auxiliary and secondary role in this conflict. They were in any case incapable of seizing the power themselves. If the preceding months had proved anything, they had proved that. Nevertheless in a Constituent Assembly the petty bourgeoisie might still win —and they actually did win as it turned out— a majority, And to what end? Only to the end of not knowing what to do with it. This reveals the bankruptcy of formal democracy in a deep historic crisis. It reveals the strength of tradition, however, that even on the eve of the last battle neither camp had yet renounced the name of the Constituent Assembly. But as a matter of fact the bourgeoisie had appealed from the Constituent Assembly to Kornilov, and the Bolsheviks to the Congress of Soviets." (The History of the Russian Revolution, pp. 937-8.)
I reproduce this passage in full, so that there can be no doubt about what is being said. Trotsky explains very clearly something that Lenin already predicted in the April Conference, namely that the CA slogan would play an entirely subordinate role in the revolution. The words he uses are clear and unambiguous: "pale and faded out, had somehow been ground between millstones, had become an empty shell, a form naked of content, a tradition and not a prospect."
Let us recall that tsarist Russia was a backward, semi-feudal, semi-colonial country with an autocratic regime. In such a country the defence of bourgeois democratic demands – including the Constituent Assembly – was very important. Yet in the course of the revolution, this particular demand lost all of its revolutionary significance and became an obstacle. Not for nothing did Kamenev and Zinoviev cling to this demand when they tried to oppose the seizure of power in November. And, as we know, in the end, the Bolsheviks dispersed the CA and ruled through the soviets.
There is a very simple explanation for all this. Trotsky explained as early as 1904 that, although the objective tasks of the Russian Revolution were bourgeois democratic in character, they could not be carried out by the Russian bourgeoisie. Only the working class, in alliance with the poor peasants, could carry out the bourgeois democratic tasks, once it had taken power. But when the proletariat takes power it will not stop at the bourgeois democratic tasks, but will proceed immediately to the socialist tasks. Herein lies the "permanent" nature of the revolution.
Over 80 years later the PO (and other groups) insist in advocating for Argentina a slogan that Lenin and Trotsky already considered to be "pale and faded out, an empty shell, a form naked of content, a tradition and not a prospect" even before the October revolution. Worse still, they assign to this inappropriate slogan the central place in all their propaganda and agitation – which the Bolsheviks never did. If there was no basis for such a slogan in Russia in 1917 there is absolutely no basis for it in Argentina today. Argentina, as we have pointed out many times, is a relatively developed capitalist country where the working class constitutes a decisive majority of society. That is why the content of the Argentine revolution is socialist, not bourgeois democratic, and all slogans must flow from this fact.
The dictatorship of the proletariat
Luis Oviedo accepts what is obvious, namely that the CA slogan is not a socialist but a bourgeois democratic demand. In Bolivia, this slogan is not complimentary to the perspective of workers' power but in direct contradiction to it. You can have bourgeois parliamentarism (even "with power") or you can have a workers' state: but you cannot have both.
While theoretically standing for socialist revolution, the PO leaders' insistence on the CA actually points in the opposite direction. They do not want to admit this, so they counterattack by claiming that we do not advocate workers' power. The implication of comrade Oviedo's words (though no doubt he will deny it) is approximately as follows: "OK, so the PO does not stand for the socialist revolution, but neither does Socialist Appeal."
Anyone who takes the trouble to read our articles on Bolivia will know that we have consistently put forward the perspective of workers' power and have shown how it can be achieved:
"No confidence in the Mesa government. Maintain the mobilisation. Strengthen the democratic organisation of workers and peasants. Organise the workers' and peoples' self-defence. For a national assembly of elected and recallable delegates to pose the taking of power. For a Socialist Bolivia within the framework of a Socialist Federation of Latin America". (Bolivia: first balance-sheet of the insurrection "A revolutionary party was missing" by Jorge Martín, October 20, 2003.)
In desperation, Luis tries to say that we do not support the dictatorship of the proletariat. He asserts that nowhere does the phrase "dictatorship of the proletariat" appear in my writings. If my good friend only knew how to use the "find" function as well as the word count on his computer, he would have discovered that I have dealt with this subject many times. Comrade Oviedo is in such a hurry to "discredit" us that he doesn't even do his homework properly. In my article, On the constituent assembly slogan: Is it applicable to Argentina? (February 11, 2002) there is a subheading, Dictatorship of the proletariat, in which I wrote the following:
"If what is meant is that the constituent assembly must have no power above it, in other words, must concentrate all power in its hands in order to crush the resistance of the bankers and capitalists, then what we are talking about is no longer a bourgeois democratic parliament, but a revolutionary dictatorship of the working class which puts itself at the head of the Nation in order to carry through the expropriation of landlordism and capitalism. This is most probably what the comrades of the PO mean. But then it should be made absolutely clear.
"If this interpretation is correct, then we are not talking about a constituent assembly, but the dictatorship of the proletariat. Given the fact that the word "dictatorship", after Hitler, Stalin and the Argentine Junta, has certain connotations which have nothing to do with the original conception of Marx and Lenin – for whom the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat' meant nothing more than a regime of workers' democracy – we do not expect the Argentine comrades to utilise this expression in their propaganda. That would merely provide an excuse to the counter-revolutionaries to distort and discredit our arguments."
Anyone reading this will clearly see that we have not renounced the "dictatorship of the proletariat". We merely explain the idea of workers' power (which is what the slogan means) in language that the workers can understand, since we must always explain the ideas of Marxism in a way that can get an echo among the working class. Is this so difficult to understand?
When Marx first put forward the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat, he had a very definite historical analogy in mind: namely, the Roman Republic, which in times of war gave extraordinary powers to the military leader (the "dictator"). However, this was a temporary situation, lasting not more than one year. At no time did Marx ever support the idea of a totalitarian regime, which is what most people today imagine when they hear the word "dictatorship".
From where did Marx get the idea of dictatorship of the proletariat? He got it from the Paris Commune, the state – or, more correctly, semi-state established by the working people of Paris in 1871, when they rose up against the dictatorship of Louis Bonaparte. This was, apart from the early Soviet state in Russia, the most democratic form of government in history. It was based on free elections (there was no question of a one-party state – there were many parties and groups represented in the Commune), the right of recall, limitation of the salaries of officials and the replacement of the standing army by the armed people. Anything less like a totalitarian regime it would be hard to imagine!
Today, over a century since Marx first put forward the idea of dictatorship of the proletariat, things have changed a lot. After the experience of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin, when people hear the word dictatorship, they immediately think of concentration camps and secret police. This is a tremendous bonus to the enemies of socialism, who always claim that communism means totalitarian slavery. In Argentina, where the memory of the Junta is till fresh, any party that was foolish enough to agitate for dictatorship of any kind would immediately alienate a large number of people. They would say: "the present ‘democracy' is bad enough – but the other was much worse. We don't want another dictatorship, thank you!"
While loudly protesting about our alleged abandonment of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the PO leaders understand this quite well. Luis Oviedo evidently does not have a very high opinion of the intelligence of his readers. He hopes they will not notice that the PO itself has modified the way in which it presents the dictatorship of the proletariat. In his article he says the following:
"The PO has never stopped developing its politics on the basis of the strategy of the workers government (for us, the popular denomination of the dictatorship of the proletariat) even when raising the slogan of People's Constituent Assembly... and especially when raising this slogan, a transitional slogan, and not a "stageist" one. Woods, in contrast, is a unique case world-wide: he opposes, at the same time, the slogan of Constituent Assembly and dictatorship of the proletariat."
Really? Our friend Luis admits that even the r-r-r-revolutionary leaders of the PO need a "popular denomination" for the dictatorship of the proletariat. You see, they do not actually call it the dictatorship of the proletariat but a workers' government. In fact, a workers' government does not necessarily signify the dictatorship of the proletariat, though in some circumstances it might do so. But let that pass. For the moment, we will limit ourselves to congratulating the comrades of the PO for their good common sense in avoiding an unnecessary complication and choosing a perfectly acceptable alternative slogan that can actually get an echo in the working class.
All over the world the ultra-lefts make fools of themselves when they repeat like parrots the phrases they have learned by heart from Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, without understanding what they mean. For their part, the PO leaders use the slogan of a workers' government instead of dictatorship of the proletariat. In principle, we can accept what Luis says: that the slogan of a workers' government can serve as a transitional slogan that implies workers' power, though this may not be the case.
To be absolutely precise, whether a workers' government means the same thing as the dictatorship of the proletariat depends on the nature and composition of the government. Luis Oviedo knows perfectly well that the international Marxist tendency to which I belong has consistently stood for workers' power (the "dictatorship of the proletariat"), and all attempts to deny this will rebound against those who are responsible.
Oviedo goes on quoting: "In Bolivia he says, 'what is needed is workers' democracy leading to socialism' ("The Bolivian workers had power within their grasp - Los trabajadores bolivianos tuvieron el poder al alcance de la mano")." He then proceeds to twist and distort its meaning:
"Which is to say that he supports, not 'dictatorship' but instead democracy, like the LCR. Moreover, he supports 'labor' democracy, not workers democracy, which is to say, the popular front version of the democratic dictatorship of workers and peasants which The Transitional Program denounces." [Note: whoever has translated this article has rendered the Spanish phrase "democracia de los trabajadores" as "labor democracy"; it would be more correct to express this as " workers' democracy" or "democracy of the working people"].
This method is completely dishonest. He tries to present us as defenders of bourgeois democracy, "the same as the LCR". This method has a name: it is called an amalgam. This method was frequently used by the Stalinists against Trotsky, but it is unprecedented that it should be used by Trotskyists.
We note in passing that he quotes Los trabajadores bolivianos tuvieron el poder al alcance de la mano, from the web site of our Argentine comrades, claiming that I wrote it, when in actual fact what he is quoting is a leaflet produced by our Argentine comrades. But that is not the most important question. It just shows how much of a hurry he is in, that he doesn't even check what he is quoting. Even so, he quotes only isolated phrases, distorting them in the process. In that leaflet we read the following:
"In order really to satisfy the demands of the masses (end the poverty and exploitation of the workers (trabajadores) and peasants, nationalization of the natural resources, a viable distribution of the productive land, respect for the native people, punishment of those responsible for the killings, whether materially or politically – that is to say, the solution for the urgent social needs) power must pass into the hands of the working people (trabajadores) (workers, miners and peasants) through their organs of power. That is to say, what is needed is a workers' democracy (una democracia de trabajadores), leading to socialism. With this objective, it is necessary to form a revolutionary Marxist party, beginning with, for instance, the most advanced workers of the COB, since they are drawing similar conclusions to those outlined above."
Are these lines not absolutely clear? Is it not clear that our comrades are calling for a workers' government in Bolivia, based on the organs of power of the masses – that is, soviets? And is it not equally clear that Luis Oviedo has deliberately quoted an isolated phrase ("democracia de los trabajadores") out of context in an attempt to distort its meaning and demonstrate the opposite of what we say? We say that power must be taken by the workers, in alliance with the poor peasants. How a democracy of the workers can be construed as meaning merely "democracy" in the bourgeois sense, or a popular front, only a genius like comrade Oviedo can explain.
All that the dictatorship of the proletariat means is a workers' democracy (which in Spanish may be translated either as democracia de los trabajadores or democracia obrera). Let us put this issue still more concretely. In a bourgeois democracy, the workers are allowed to say, more or less, what they like, to strike, demonstrate, and vote in elections, but in reality all the important decisions are taken by the big banks and monopolies. Thus, a bourgeois democracy is just another way of expressing the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.
In a workers' democracy, the situation is reversed. The working class rules through the soviets, while the former owners are stripped of their economic and political power. That is what the dictatorship of the proletariat is. In other words, the expressions "dictatorship of the proletariat" and "workers' democracy" mean exactly the same thing and can be used indifferently. And because of the negative connotations of the word "dictatorship", which does not at all convey what was intended by Marx and Lenin, we prefer to use an alternative – as does the PO, on Oviedo's own admission.
To confuse a workers' democracy with bourgeois democracy shows a very poor level of understanding of the ABCs of Marxism, since the two things are polar opposites, antagonistic and mutually incompatible. But then, such confusion is only to be expected from a tendency that thinks that the dictatorship of the proletariat is compatible with a Constituent Assembly.
On the history of the Fourth International
Having failed to produce a single shred of evidence, the advocate for the prosecution turns triumphantly to the jury and shouts: "I rest my case!" The absence of the aforementioned phrase clearly disqualifies me as a revolutionary Marxist, and Luis underlines the point by placing these words in inverted commas hereafter (this "revolutionary Marxist") to indicate his complete disgust at this omission:
"Our readers", he continues, "know that this 'revolutionary Marxist' [that is me, AW] does not defend the dictatorship of the proletariat in any of his numerous and extensive ["too many notes"] writings; neither does he defend it on a theoretical terrain [?]; for him, this concerns, at most, some far off historical reference. Woods, for example, dedicates hours of his valuable time attacking the Partido Obrero but has not found a single free minute to fix a position on the resolution of the Congress of the LCR [the French Mandelite organization] which has publicly repudiated the slogan of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The more you search on his web site the less you will not find anything on this point. Neither he, as head of his 'international,' nor his French section have felt compromised, because they agree with the LCR: for all of them, the dictatorship of the proletariat is a 'has been.' Just as with the leaders of the COB, here also silence is complicity."
Here at last, Luis Oviedo mentions the fact that he is really polemicising, not against Socialist Appeal, but against an international tendency, which through the person of comrade Ted Grant can trace its history in a direct and unbroken thread to Trotsky's Left Opposition, and has consistently defended the ideas, principles, methods and traditions of Trotsky.
Luis Oviedo makes much of the smallness of our forces in Argentina. Yes, in Argentina for the moment we are weak in numbers, but we are strong in ideas, and that is a guarantee that we will grow in Argentina, as we have grown in other countries. The fact that comrade Oviedo finds it necessary to attack our international tendency and our group in Argentina in the way that he has is proof that he himself realises that this is the case.
What is the reason for these continuous attacks? Oviedo wishes to raise such a mountain of calumnies that it will frighten off those who are looking for an alternative. He says: "Don't listen to these people! They are very bad!" But serious members of the PO and others who are discontented with the conduct of the existing groups in Argentina who claim to be Trotskyists will not be so easily deterred. They are capable of thinking for themselves and are not prepared to accept unproven allegations just because they come from the leadership. Any Marxist who adopts an attitude of blind faith in the leadership cannot be regarded as serious. As Lenin once told Bukharin: "If you want obedience you will get obedient fools."
When comrade Oviedo claims that we agree with the Mandelites of the LCR, he shows his complete ignorance of the history of the Fourth International. Our tendency waged a continuous struggle against the tendency of Mandel for decades. Finally, we decided that enough was enough and broke with them. We have never regretted it.
It goes without saying that any person can make a mistake, and that goes for the party or the International also. But if a party or an International always makes the same mistake, then it is not a mistake but a tendency. In the case of the so-called USFI – the "International" of Mandel and co. – this is an organic petty bourgeois tendency that has nothing in common with Trotskyism. This was plain to us a long time ago, which is why we broke radically with Mandel, Hansen and co. in 1965. Since that time we have had nothing to do with them – or any other of the pseudo Trotskyist sects who are constantly fiddling and fussing on the margins of the Labour movement.
It is therefore strange that Comrade Oviedo tries to establish a connection between the LCR and our tendency. On what grounds does he make such an extraordinary claim? He says we attack him but don't say a word about the LCR, which has abandoned the call for the "dictatorship of the proletariat". On the PO's web site there are a lot of articles attacking the LCR for this position, he says, but on Marxist.com there is not a word. Why is this? The answer is very simple. Because we have better things to do with our time than follow the political meanderings of petty bourgeois groups, which are constantly studying their navel, squabbling among each other about this or that and, of course, splitting into ever smaller fragments. What these groups say or think is of no interest to the working class, and certainly of no interest to us.
Why, asks Luis, do we criticise the PO and not the LCR? The answer is very simple. The PO leaders have attacked our tendency publicly, accusing us of all sorts of heinous crimes and systematically distorting our positions. The LCR, to our knowledge, has not attacked us publicly. Oviedo has done so. That is the only reason we have taken the time and trouble to answer the PO, and not the LCR. However, that does not mean in the slightest that we agree with the LCR either on the dictatorship of the proletariat or anything else. This is a revisionist organization that abandoned Trotskyism many years ago, so we are not surprised at anything they do or say – nor are we particularly interested.
Our attitude to the French LCR is the same as our attitude to all the other sects: we pay no attention to this group and the other 57 varieties of pseudo Trotskyist groups who have falsely laid claim to the banner of the Fourth International, but have absolutely nothing in common with the ideas, programme and methods of Trotsky. It seems that the PO has all the time in the world to study and comment upon the bizarre twists and turns of such groups. For our part, we spent about 30 years in the so-called Fourth International – always in a minority.
From 1946 onwards the British RCP, led by comrade Ted Grant waged an unceasing struggle to return the Fourth International to the ideas of Trotsky. All the other leaders failed in their duty and succumbed to opportunism or ultraleftism: not only Mandel and Pablo, but also Healy, Lambert, Hansen and Cannon. The political degeneration of the leadership led inevitably to organizational degeneration. That is always the case.
The only authority a Bolshevik leadership can have – or wish to have – is a political and a moral authority. If the leaders are confident in their ideas, they will not object to criticism. They will use political differences as a means of raising the theoretical level of the cadres of the party or the International. Internal democracy is the life-blood of the party and the International. It is necessary to allow the fullest freedom of discussion because only in this way can the party develop its programme, policy and perspectives. It is not a formal question or an expression of liberalism. It is a matter of life and death.
After Trotsky's assassination, the Organization of the Fourth International soon degenerated on the lines of Zinovievism. This development was no accident but reflected the political degeneration of the leaders of the Fourth. They made many serious political mistakes (See Ted Grant, History of British Trotskyism) and were not prepared to admit them for reasons of prestige. This is absolutely fatal for the International! Being unable to answer the criticisms of the RCP, they resorted to intrigues and organizational manoeuvres against the opposition. That was a recipe for crises and splits. That is what destroyed the Fourth International as an organization.
We have an entirely different conception of how the party and the International will be built. We stand, on the one hand, for the defence of the basic principles of revolutionary Marxism and the creation of a cadre organization. Unlike the sects, our tendency is firmly oriented towards the working class and its mass organizations, and is firmly rooted in them. At the same time we consistently defend the revolutionary ideas of Marxism at all times and in their entirety. We do not, however, waste our time with futile polemics with the sects. We answer the ideas of the bourgeois, the right and left reformists and the Stalinists, because these are ideas that have a real basis in society. Occasionally – very occasionally – we take up one or other of the ultra left groups in order to provide the workers and youth with concrete examples of how not to work.
From these pages we call upon the revolutionary Marxists of Latin America to study carefully the ideas of the international tendency, and to see for themselves the truth of this assertion. Do not listen to the slanderers! Find out the truth for yourselves! Our record is clear for all to see. Our principal documents are available for inspection on the web pages Marxist.com, Trotsky.net and TedGrant.org, and we cordially invite the members of the PO and anyone else who is interested in the history of the Trotskyist movement, to study them carefully.
Importance of the mass organizations
It is important to understand that everything that Lenin and Trotsky wrote about strategy and tactics is inseparably linked. It is impossible to select this or that point that appeals to you and ignore the rest. Real revolutionary Marxists are not those who shout loudest about the "dictatorship of the proletariat", but those who ceaselessly work to reach the masses, to penetrate the reformist trade unions and to build a firm base in the mass organizations.
Luis Oviedo makes a tremendous fuss about the fact that our Argentine comrades refer to a "democracy of the working people" (democracia de los trabajadores). How does this position compare with that of the Bolsheviks? The theses of the first four congresses of the Communist International provide us with a treasure house of ideas. They are the summing-up of the whole historical experience of the Bolshevik Party. In the Theses of the Communist International on the dictatorship of the proletariat we read the following:
"The second is to inspire, and lead in the footsteps of the revolutionary advance-guard of the proletariat (the Communist Party) not only the whole proletariat or its large majority, but the entire mass of workers and those exploited by capital; to enlighten, organize, instruct and discipline them during the course of the bold and merciless struggle against the exploiters; to wrench this enormous majority of the population in all the capitalist countries out of their state of dependence on the bourgeoisie; to instill in them, through practical experience, confidence in the leading role of the proletariat and its revolutionary advance-guard". (Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, page 131.)
This is very clear, and immediately disposes of comrade Oviedo's hair-splitting objections to the use of the word "trabajadores" used by our Argentine comrades in their leaflet. That word means precisely "the entire mass of workers and those exploited by capital" – that is, the proletarian vanguard must by all means strive to unite around itself the mass of the working class. That is precisely the essence of the dictatorship of the proletariat as understood by Marx and Lenin. For how could it function unless the mass of wage-earners, and also the mass of semi-proletarian elements, were involved?
The whole essence of a socialist revolution is the active involvement of the masses, both in the revolution itself and in the socialist reconstruction of society after the revolution. That is what we mean by a democracy of the working people – a conception that was well known to Lenin and the Bolsheviks, although not, it seems, to the chief theoretician of the PO. Let us see what the Communist International had to say on the subject:
"The Soviet system is not an abstract principle opposed by Communists to the principle of parliamentarianism. The Soviet system is a class apparatus which is destined to do away with parliamentarianism and to take its place during the struggle and as a result of the struggle. Waging a merciless struggle against reformism in the trade unions and against parliamentary cretinism and careerism, the Communist International at the same time condemns all sectarian summonses to leave the ranks of the multi-millioned trade-union organisations or to turn one's back upon parliamentary and municipal institutions. The communists do not separate themselves from the masses who are being deceived and betrayed by the reformists and the patriots, but engage the latter in an irreconcilable struggle within the mass organisations and institutions established by bourgeois society, in order to overthrow them the more surely and the more quickly". (Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, pp 168-9.)
Here we find the essence of Bolshevism. The central idea is the absolute necessity for the proletarian vanguard to establish close links to the mass of workers. It stresses the need to win over the mass of workers who remain under the influence of the reformist trade union leaders, and to conduct systematic work in the reformist mass organizations. This is something for which comrade Oviedo criticized us for very sharply in his last article. He talks in grandiose terms about the dictatorship of the proletariat, but he does not understand that, without winning over the mass of the working class, all this is just empty demagogy.
The dictatorship of the proletariat will not drop from the clouds. The embryo of a new, socialist society already exists today. It exists in the organizations of the working class – in the shop stewards committees, the trade unions (yes, in the COB, the CTA and the CGT!), in the mass workers' parties. True, under capitalism these organizations are heavily encrusted with the filth of bureaucracy. In their upper layers they contain many elements from alien classes that strive to tie them to the bourgeois and the state. But Marxists must be able to see the inner contradictions within these organizations, must be able to see how they reflect the pressures of society and the class struggle. Most importantly, we must be able to establish firm links with them, penetrate them and work in them to win over the workers. This is how the Communist International posed the question while it was still a revolutionary International:
"This means that we Communists must do ten times as much work in the trade union movement. We must at all costs wrench these trade unions from the hands of the capitalists and social-traitors. Therefore we must be inside these unions; we must direct our best cadres to work in the unions.
Our supporters will stay inside the unions; they will act not in isolation, but in a co-ordinated way. We must organize a Communist group, a Communist cell in every section of the unions. It is our job to use the day-to-day struggles to expose the tricks of the Jouhauxs of this world. We must open the eyes of the rank-and-file members of the unions. We must drive the social-traitor leaders out". (Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, p. 88.)
The CI made the active participation of Communists in the reformist mass organizations a condition of membership. This is perfectly logical. The dictatorship of the proletariat presupposes that the working class can count on the support of the broadest masses of the labouring people. Without this, it would collapse immediately. Therefore, the way in which the party prepares for the dictatorship of the proletariat is precisely by winning over the broad masses. This preparatory work presupposes systematic work to penetrate the mass organizations, particularly the trade unions.
It is criminal to separate the proletarian vanguard from the mass of the working class. Lenin emphasised this a thousand times. Yet everything he and Trotsky wrote on the subject remains a closed book for the sects who babble on about the "dictatorship of the proletariat" while in practice destroying any possibility of ever reaching it in real life.
How will the dictatorship of the proletariat be established in Bolivia? Certainly not through a Constituent Assembly, which, no matter how you embellish it, is nothing more than a bourgeois parliament. No! It can only come through the rule of the soviets. But what are the soviets in Bolivia and how can they be built? They will not drop from the clouds, as the sects imagine. They can only come from the real movement of the Bolivian working class, from the strike committees that will be set up by the workers in and around the COB.
The soviets in the Russian revolution began life as extended strike committees in 1905. They reappeared in February 1917, when they were under the control of the reformists (Mensheviks and SRs). The Bolsheviks were then in a small minority. But by a combination of iron firmness on principles and flexible tactics, the revolutionary tendency gradually won the majority and took power in November.
What was the key to the success of the Bolsheviks? The fact that, without making any principled concessions, they based themselves on the mass organizations of the proletariat that had been created by the workers themselves: the trade unions and the soviets. The same tactics apply in Bolivia and every other country today.
What should the Bolivian Marxists do? Stand on the sidelines, shouting insults at the COB leaders and calling on the masses to leave their leaders and join them? Or to participate shoulder to shoulder with the rank and file of the COB, impelling the creation of action committees, participating in the general strike, earning the respect of the workers, gathering the most conscious and militant elements around them, and striving to win the majority for the programme of the proletarian revolution? The answer is not only to be found in the resolutions and theses of the Communist International – it is to be found in the common sense and healthy class instincts of every Bolivian worker.
On the piqueteros
"Alan Woods does not know ANT". This is the headline of Luis Oviedo's next article. He is responding to my criticism of the PO's tactics in the piqueteros movement, where I made the following observation:
"Every sectarian group wishes to create the illusion of its own mass movement. We see this in the case of the Piqueteros movement. Although the PO has done good work in building the movement, it plays a negative role in refusing to unite the piqueteros in one common organization. Objectively, the interests of the piqueteros is to unite; division is harmful to their interests and only serves the interests of the ruling class. The only reason why they remain divided is because the different political groups (not only the PO) insist on maintaining control of 'their' piqueteros. This conduct is frankly lamentable. We said so and we repeat it. If this is construed as being 'against the piqueteros' we can only shrug our shoulders. What is really against the piqueteros is the kind of tactic that subordinates the interests of the class to the prestige of this or that clique."
Before we say anything else, I must make a rectification. I confess that I used a term that was unnecessarily harsh, and has clearly caused some offence. I said that the failure of the PO to press for the unity of the piqueteros movement was "lamentable". Given the very good work the comrades of the PO have done in developing the movement, I can understand that such sharp language is excessive, and I withdraw it unreservedly. Nevertheless, I still maintain that the failure to unite the piqueteros movement is a very serious mistake and will have negative consequences for the revolutionary movement as a whole.
In reply, Comrade Luis draws my attention to the National Assembly of Workers (de la Asamblea Nacional de Trabajadores) that met in June 2001. He asks if I have ever heard of the ANT and of other national meetings of the piqueteros and other sections. I have not only heard of them but have written articles praising them – and also praising the PO for its role in calling them. In February 2002 I wrote:
"In all this, a key role is being played by the Trotskyists of the PO and other organisations and parties. The convening of the National Assembly of Workers was a great success for the revolutionary vanguard. We salute this success with every possible enthusiasm. We are pleased to say that, whereas we disagreed with the slogan of the constituent assembly, we are in complete agreement with the slogans that were approved last weekend. This gives us every confidence that, on the basis of the above demands, the Argentine revolution is now moving in the right direction". (The way forward -A footnote by Alan Woods- in Argentina: National Workers' Assembly meeting - a big step forward by Jordi Martorell, February 20, 2002)
We could quote many similar passages, but you can read all this in the original. So yes, Luis, I have heard about the ANT. These were excellent initiatives in the line of a united front. That is very good, but it was not the point I was making. If we take the piqueteros movement as a kind of "trade union" of the unemployed, then it is clear that we stand for the unity of all piqueteros in one organization. That was always the position of the Marxists, for the simple reason that the only strength of the working class is its unity. That is true for the workers who have jobs but it is a thousand times truer of the unemployed.
In my article I asked the question: why does the piqueteros movement remain divided? Luis Oviedo did not answer this question, but avoided it by referring to the ANT. There is no objective reason why the movement should not be united – except the fact that it is split up under the control of different political groups. If there is any other reason, then comrade Oviedo should have said what it is. He did not do so, which I regard as a tacit confirmation of what I said.
If the PO is confident of the superiority of its ideas and methods, then it should be prepared to work patiently within a united piqueteros movement, striving to unite the broadest layers of the unemployed in a single, militant mass movement, while fighting to win over the majority. That was always the method of Lenin and Trotsky, and was expressed repeatedly in the documents and resolutions of the first four congresses of the Communist International.
Luis' references to the ANT does not answer the question I asked. So I will repeat it: why does the PO not take the initiative in offering unity to the other piqueteros organizations? It is clear that the disunity that exists is not the sole responsibility of the PO. Other groups, like the MST, also maintain separate organizations of piqueteros, and must also be held responsible for the present situation. But the Marxists have a duty to press for the greatest possible unity of the workers and unemployed in the struggle against Capital.
Maybe Luis will reply that the others will refuse. In that case, you will place the responsibility for splitting the movement on the shoulders of those who oppose unity. If they agree, then the movement will emerge strengthened, and the authority of that tendency that pressed for unity will be far greater. In either case the tendency that fights for unity should gain.
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: Politica 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, Politica 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.
Lenin and the defence of the Fatherland
Marxism (and especially Leninism) teaches us that the main enemy is at home. Under no circumstances is it permissible for Marxists to subordinate the class struggle to the leadership of “our” bourgeoisie. This was explained a hundred times by Lenin.
“Aha!” Luis Oviedo will object. “But you have forgotten the national question! You have forgotten that Argentina is a poor, semi-colonial country that is oppressed and exploited by imperialism.”
Even if this characterisation of Argentina were correct, it still would not be justified to adopt a patriotic position and go along (enthusiastically) with the jingoism and the foreign adventures of the Argentine bourgeoisie. Lenin explained many times that the proletariat must always maintain complete independence from the bourgeoisie – and that also goes for the bourgeoisie of small, colonially oppressed countries.
Argentina was a colonial country in the past, but that was a long time ago. Two hundred years is long enough for the bourgeoisie to develop a state in the image of the advanced imperialist nations, to enrich itself, to develop an aggressive foreign policy and, yes, an imperialist psychology and agenda. The period of the bourgeois democratic revolution is far behind it. The oligarchy has all the features of monopoly capitalism. True, it remains dependent on imperialism and foreign capital – as did Russian Tsarism. But its real role is that of a partner to the imperialists – a junior partner, it is true, but a partner nonetheless.
There is no doubt that the masses in Argentina feel deeply that the Malvinas belongs to Argentina. This is an expression of their hatred of imperialism, which is progressive. The Marxists of Argentina obviously had to take this mood into consideration. But one thing is the healthy anti-imperialist sentiments of the masses, and another quite different thing is the cynical utilisation of this feeling by the reactionary bourgeoisie.
In reality the Argentine bourgeoisie is only a local agency of imperialism. It tries to deceive the masses with patriotic rhetoric as a means of maintaining its class domination. The task of the Argentine Marxists is to unmask the bourgeoisie and expose the hollowness of its “patriotic” demagogy. For the nation? Yes, but for 200 years the bourgeoisie has been plundering the nation, selling it to the highest bidder and leading it to ruin. The only way to defend the nation is by expropriating the oligarchy. It is necessary to keep this firmly in mind.
Let us see how Lenin posed the question. We quote at length, so that there can be no danger of misunderstanding and we can see Lenin’s position as a whole, not this or that extract taken out of context:
“Imperialism means the progressively mounting oppression of the nations of the world by a handful of Great Powers; it means a period of wars between the latter to extend and consolidate the oppression of nations; it means a period in which the masses of the people are deceived by hypocritical social-patriots, i.e., individuals who, under the pretext of the “freedom of nations”, “the right of nations to self-determination”, and “defence of the fatherland”, justify and defend the oppression of the majority of the world’s nations by the Great Powers.
“That is why the focal point in the Social-Democratic programme must be that division of nations into oppressor and oppressed which forms the essence of imperialism, and is deceitfully evaded by the social-chauvinists and Kautsky. This division is not significant from the angle of bourgeois pacifism or the philistine Utopia of peaceful competition among independent nations under capitalism, but it is most significant from the angle of the revolutionary struggle against imperialism. It is from this division that our definition of the “right of nations to self-determination” must follow, a definition that is consistently democratic, revolutionary, and in accord with the general task of the immediate struggle for socialism. It is for that right, and in a struggle to achieve sincere recognition for it, that the Social-Democrats of the oppressor nations must demand that the oppressed nations should have the right of secession, for otherwise recognition of equal rights for nations and of international working-class solidarity would in fact be merely empty phrase-mongering, sheer hypocrisy. On the other hand, the Social-Democrats of the oppressed nations must attach prime significance to the unity and the merging of the workers of the oppressed nations with those of the oppressor nations; otherwise these Social-Democrats will involuntarily become the allies of their own national bourgeoisie, which always betrays the interests of the people and of democracy, and is always ready, in its turn, to annex territory and oppress other nations.” (Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 21, p. 409.)
How clearly Lenin explains the most complicated phenomena! Here the question of imperialism and the oppression of small states is expressed perfectly. In the imperialist phase, the entire world is dominated by big monopolies and a few imperialist great powers. These are the main enemies of the working class and the overthrow of imperialism is the central task of the world revolution.
The world revolution is a war that is divided up into a whole series of partial battles, among which there is the battle for democratic demands, including the demand for self-determination and other revolutionary democratic demands. A consistent anti-imperialist policy is a necessary condition for successful revolutionary work.
However, this is only one half of Lenin’s programme. The other half, equally important, was the need to maintain the absolute independence of the proletariat and its organizations. Lenin was well aware that the bourgeoisie in the oppressed colonial countries was incapable of fighting imperialism. Only the working class, allied to the poor peasants, could wage a serious struggle against imperialism. That is why he warns that:
“The Social-Democrats of the oppressed nations must attach prime significance to the unity and the merging of the workers of the oppressed nations with those of the oppressor nations.” What did he mean by this? Only this: that while the proletarian vanguard of the big imperialist powers must fight against their own imperialist bourgeoisie and defend the rights of small nations, the proletarian vanguard of the oppressed colonial and semi-colonial countries must also fight against the chauvinists and the national bourgeoisie and lay stress on the need for unity with the workers in the imperialist countries. Otherwise, he warns, they “will involuntarily become the allies of their own national bourgeoisie, which always betrays the interests of the people and of democracy, and is always ready, in its turn, to annex territory and oppress other nations.”
Is that not perfectly clear? Lenin explains that the workers of oppressed colonial countries must never become the allies of “their own” national bourgeoisie, which will inevitably (Lenin’s phrase) become an aggressive robber (a weak imperialist) class, eager to “annex territory and oppress other nations.”
How Trotsky posed the question
Even after reading these lines, there may still be some who resist the idea that it is possible for a country to be at one and the same time a colonial (or semi-colonial) and an imperialist nation. Listen to Trotsky on this very subject:
“In one sense Tsarist Russia was also a colonial country, and this found its expression in the predominant role of foreign capital. But the Russian bourgeoisie enjoyed the benefits of an immeasurably greater independence from foreign imperialism than the Chinese bourgeoisie. Russia itself was an imperialist country.” (Revolution and war in China, 1938, in Leon Trotsky on China, p. 588, my emphasis)
In what sense was tsarist Russia a colonial (or rather, a semi-colonial) country? In the fact that the belated development of Russia made it economically dependent on world imperialism. It was deeply dependant on loans from France and other countries, and on investment from the foreign banks and big monopolies that owned and controlled most of Russian industry. In The History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky points out this dependence of Russian industry on foreign capital, a typical feature of a colonial or semi-colonial country:
“The confluence of industrial with bank capital was also accomplished in Russia with a completeness you might not find in any other country. But the subjection of the industries to the banks meant, for the same reasons, their subjection to the western European money market. Heavy industry (metal, coal, oil) was almost wholly under the control of foreign finance capital, which had created for itself an auxiliary and intermediate system of banks in Russia. Light industry was following the same road. Foreigners owned in general about 40 per cent of all the stock capital of Russia, but in the leading branches of industry that percentage was still higher. We can say without exaggeration that the controlling shares of stock in the Russian banks, plants and factories were to be found abroad, the amount held in England, France and Belgium being almost double that in Germany.” (The History of the Russian Revolution, p. 32.)
The same could be said of Argentina, which, however, was, and still is, far more developed than tsarist Russia ever was. But did this backwardness and semi-colonial dependence prevent tsarist Russia from playing an imperialist role, oppressing nations, invading the territory of its neighbours, robbing and looting? Not at all – these were the essential features of the tsarist state, which had a highly predatory and imperialist character, although its imperialism was of a most primitive kind, based on the seizure of territory and the oppression of small nations, and not the export of capital.
There can be no greater error on the part of the Marxists in colonial or ex-colonial nations than to accept as good coin the tearful complaints of their own bourgeoisie that they are “poor” and “oppressed”. Under the cloak of this demagogy, the landlords and capitalists continue to oppress, enslave and rob their own workers and peasants, while collaborating with the foreign imperialists and acting as their local servants and agents.
China was undoubtedly a colonial country, suffering terrible oppression at the hands of foreign imperialism. But Trotsky poured scorn on the idea that the Chinese national bourgeoisie could play a progressive role:
“Lenin insisted on a distinction between an oppressed bourgeois nation and a bourgeois oppressor nation. But Lenin nowhere raised and never could raise the question as if the bourgeoisie of a colonial or a semi-colonial country in an epoch of struggle for national liberation must be more progressive and more revolutionary than the bourgeoisie of a non-colonial country in the epoch of the democratic revolution. This does not flow from anything in theory; there is no confirmation of it in history. For example, pitiful as Russian liberalism was, and hybrid as was its left half –the petty-bourgeois democrats, the Social Revolutionaries, and Mensheviks– it would nevertheless hardly be possible to say that Chinese liberalism and Chinese bourgeois democracy rose to a higher level or were more revolutionary than their Russian prototypes.
“To present matters as if there must inevitably flow from the fact of colonial oppression the revolutionary character of a national bourgeoisie is to reproduce inside out the fundamental error of Menshevism, which held that the revolutionary nature of the Russian bourgeoisie must flow from the oppression of feudalism and the autocracy.” (Summary and Perspectives of the Chinese Revolution, 1928, in Leon Trotsky on China, pp. 294-5.)
That is what Trotsky says. The argument, which is frequently advanced by the ultra-lefts who repeat Lenin on the national question without having grasped the method of Lenin, is only Menshevism stood on its head. It implies that the working class must tail-end the bourgeoisie of oppressed nations and subordinate its class interests to those of “the (oppressed) nation – that is, to the bourgeoisie. But nowhere does Lenin say any such thing: he says precisely the opposite. The reactionary nature of the bourgeoisie of oppressed nations was also well understood by Lenin and Trotsky, who wrote the following in the same work:
“Lenin not only demanded that the greatest attention be paid to the national problem of the peoples in tsarist Russia but also proclaimed (against Bukharin and others) that it was the elementary duty of the proletariat of the dominant nation to support the struggle of the oppressed nations for their self-determination, up to and including separation. But did the party conclude from this that the bourgeoisie of the nationalities oppressed by tsarism (the Poles, Ukrainians, Tatars, Jews, Armenians, and others) were more progressive, more radical, and more revolutionary than the Russian bourgeoisie?
“Historical experience bears out the fact that the Polish bourgeoisie –notwithstanding the fact that it suffered both from the yoke of the autocracy and from national oppression– was more reactionary than the Russian bourgeoisie and, in the State Dumas, always gravitated not toward the Cadets but toward the Octobrists. The same is true of the Tatar bourgeoisie. The fact that the Jews had absolutely no rights whatever did not prevent the Jewish bourgeoisie from being even more cowardly, more reactionary and more vile than the Russian bourgeoisie. Or perhaps the Estonian bourgeoisie, the Latvian, the Georgian, or the Armenian bourgeoisie were more revolutionary than the great Russian bourgeoisie? How could anyone forget such Historical lessons!" (Summary and Perspectives of the Chinese Revolution, 1928, in Leon Trotsky on China, pp. 299-300.)
Lenin and Trotsky on the national question
Lenin and Trotsky always defended the rights of small oppressed nations against imperialism, but they never proposed a bloc between the working class and the bourgeois and petty bourgeois nationalists. They demanded that the proletariat and its organizations must at all times remain absolutely independent from the national bourgeoisie. The reason for this is self-evident: the national bourgeoisie is incapable of fighting against imperialism or of realising a single one of the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution – or, as Lenin preferred to call it in such cases, the national democratic revolution. Only the working class can solve these problems by taking power into its own hands. That is the central issue that must be emphasised at all times.
Lenin insisted that the proletariat of oppressed nations must fight the nationalist bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie in order to win over the mass of workers and poor peasants. He also insisted that, while it was the duty of the workers in the advanced imperialist nations to fight against imperialism and defend freedom for the colonies, the working class of the oppressed and colonial nations must defend internationalism and unity with the workers of the oppressor states against the common enemy. Luis Oviedo’s memory is very selective on this question, as on others. He remembers very well the first half of Lenin’s position, but completely forgets the second half. Unfortunately, it is precisely the second half that refers to him and the party to which he belongs.
Lenin insisted that the Russian workers (the workers of the oppressor nation) must defend the right to self-determination up to, and including, the right to secession. But he also insisted that the workers of the oppressed nations under tsarist rule must fight against their own bourgeoisie – including the Liberals. What would he have said about those Argentine Marxists who in 1982 were prepared to unite, not with the Liberal bourgeoisie, but with a vicious and bloody dictatorship, allegedly for the “struggle against imperialism”?
Let us give an interesting example from Russian history. As we have shown, Tsarist Russia was at the same time a backward, semi-feudal and semi-colonial country and an imperialist state. It was economically subordinated to the wealthier imperialisms of Britain, America, France, Germany and Belgium. In 1904 tsarist Russia was at war with Japan – a young and aggressive imperialist power. The immediate cause of the clash was the conflict between Russia and Japan over China (Manchuria), but in fact, Japan was aiming to invade and conquer Siberia.
What was the position of the Russian Marxists in the war of 1904? All the tendencies, from the Bolsheviks to the Mensheviks, adopted a defeatist position – that is they stood for the defeat of Russia. This was even the position of the Russian Liberals (“Cadets”), and every democratic trend. The defeat of Russia would lead to the overthrow of Tsarism – that was the reason why all revolutionaries and consistent democrats stood for a defeatist policy. Their position was shown to be correct in the first Russian revolution of 1905, which flowed directly from the defeat of Russia in the war.
It is true that the war of 1904 between Russia and Japan was a war between two rival gangsters. Russian Tsarism oppressed the workers and peasants, but would Japanese rule have been any better? It is sufficient to recall the horrors of Japanese colonial rule in China to answer the question. Yet the Russian Marxists remained implacably hostile to the patriotic appeals. They stood for revolutionary defeatism and insisted that the main enemy was at home. Incidentally, even if he had taken the line that it was necessary to defend Russia against Japanese imperialism, can one imagine Lenin going to the Tsar to pledge his support for the “national cause”? The very idea is an abomination and a scandal.
Lenin ridiculed the Mensheviks for not supporting revolutionary defeatism with sufficient energy. This was typical of Lenin. All his life Lenin fought against patriotic deviations in the workers’ movement. He advocated the revolutionary unity of the workers of warring states – and also between the workers of colonial and imperialist states. Of course, the workers of the imperialist countries must fight against their imperialist bourgeoisie, but the workers of the oppressed nation or nationality must also fight against their own bourgeoisie and oppose all attempts of the latter to win them over by appealing to nationalist demagogy.
On this question Lenin was always implacable. To blur the line of division between Marxism and nationalism is a violation of everything Lenin ever stood for. Let Lenin speak for himself. In order to combat the pernicious illusions peddled by the nationalists, Lenin warned that: "The proletariat cannot support any consolidation of nationalism, on the contrary, it supports everything that helps to obliterate national distinctions and remove national barriers, supports everything that makes the ties between nationalities closer and closer or leads to the amalgamation of nations. To act differently means taking the side of reactionary nationalist philistinism." (LCW, Critical Remarks on the National Question, October-December 1913, vol. 20.)
And again: "Whoever wants to serve the proletariat must unite the workers of all nations and fight bourgeois nationalism, 'home' and foreign, unswervingly." (Ibid.) Similar quotes could be reproduced from dozens of his articles and speeches.
What should have been the conduct of the Argentine Marxists in the war? It certainly should not have been one of support for the Junta in its military adventure. What was necessary was to maintain a position of class independence, while taking into consideration the natural and deeply felt anti-imperialist aspirations of the masses. They should have said to the workers and youth:
“You believe that the Junta will fight British imperialism. We do not accept this. If they were serious about fighting British imperialism, the first thing they would have done would have been to expropriate the property of the British imperialists, followed by the property of the US imperialists, followed by the property of the Argentinian oligarchy who are the office boys of imperialism. But they did not do this because they are tied to imperialism. We cannot win a war with one hand tied behind our back. The only way to defeat imperialism is by overthrowing the Junta.”
Of course, the Argentine Marxists would have to join the army and fight alongside the rest of their class. We are not pacifists and must go with the masses. Probably our propaganda would not have had much of an echo at first. The fumes of patriotism were too strong. But this was only a passing intoxication. Later, when the harsh truth dawned upon the people, the authority of the revolutionaries would grow by leaps and bounds.
Is Argentina a colonial country?
The fundamental mistake is to describe Argentina as if it were an oppressed semi-colonial country. This definition contains a serious danger. If one accepts the definition of Argentina as a semi-colonial oppressed nation, there is always the temptation to accept the idea that Argentina is “not yet ready” for socialism, that bourgeois democracy has not yet been sufficiently developed, that the bourgeois democratic tasks have not yet been completed – and so on and so forth. The PO, instead of placing the perspective of workers’ power at the centre, puts forward the Constituent Assembly as the central demand of the Argentine revolution. Although they deny that this is the “two-stage” position, in practice it amounts to this.
Argentina has been formally independent for about 200 years. It has a developed economy and a mainly urban population. Argentina has all the conditions to become a wealthy country: oil, gas, a rich agriculture and an educated population. Most Argentines therefore never saw themselves as members of the “Third World” but as Europeans. There is a developed industry and no peasantry. Agriculture is run on capitalist lines. These are not the typical features of a semi-colonial nation. In fact, not so long ago Argentina was the tenth industrial nation on earth. The fact that the monstrous oligarchy has ruined the country and pushed large sections of the people into poverty and hunger is another matter altogether. It is merely an expression of the hopelessly reactionary character of the Argentine bourgeoisie.
The Argentine bourgeoisie, in fact, was traditionally pro-British. It was common for the Argentine bourgeois to lament the fact that they had been a Spanish colony, rather than part of the British Empire, so that they would be like Australia. This is the kind of servile and cowardly mentality that the Argentine bourgeois had, and still have, towards imperialism. To demand from them a genuine struggle against imperialism is to demand pears from an elm tree.
Before the Second World War, at least some Argentine Trotskyists knew perfectly well that Argentina was not a backward semi-colony but a relatively developed, medium-sized capitalist country. But since then the “Third World” tendency has got the upper hand. The earlier (correct) analysis has been forgotten and most Argentine Trotskyists have accepted a false analysis that has very negative and dangerous implications.
Their mistaken analysis of the nature of Argentina was the main reason why so many on the Left in Argentina lost their bearings and abandoned a class position during the war of the Malvinas. Setting out from the incorrect analysis of Argentina as a semi-colonial nation, they were swept off their feet by the wave of patriotism that the Junta had unleashed in order to disorient the masses and head off a revolution. Thus, an incorrect theory leads to disaster in practice.
As a matter of fact, even if we accept the argument that Argentina is a semi-colonial nation, the conduct of most of the Argentine Trotskyists would still have been a dereliction of duty. Even in the national liberation struggle, Lenin and Trotsky always insisted that the proletarian vanguard must always maintain absolute independence form the nationalist bourgeoisie. The proletariat must fight against imperialism, but it must do so with its own methods, under its own banner and in order to strengthen its own position.
The first condition is: no mixing up of banners – march separately and strike together. But this was not the case here. Most of the Argentine Left went along with the military adventure prepared by the Junta for counterrevolutionary purposes, and they went along with it enthusiastically. An extreme case was the conduct of the PST, who actually sent a delegation to discuss the terms of their collaboration with Galtieri in the war. One would have thought that 22 years later those who lay claim to the heritage of Moreno would hang their heads in shame, but no. They still defend this aberration. They even praise it as an example of proletarian “Realpolitik”. Look! They say. Galtieri tortured and murdered 30,000 people, including our own comrades. Yet we still went to see him to discuss the reconquest of our Malvinas.”
This is really incredible. Even if one were to accept that this was the case of a colonial country oppressed by imperialism, and a genuine war of national liberation (which it was not), such conduct would be completely intolerable. Lenin and Trotsky fought against class collaboration all their lives. It is unthinkable that any of their followers should act in such a way. The argument about an “oppressed semi-colonial country” does not justify it in the slightest.
The revolutionaries in backward countries must maintain their class independence from the bourgeoisie at all times. Just think of the scathing criticisms that Trotsky made of Ghandi and the other bourgeois nationalist leaders of the Indian National Congress, when they were supposed to be fighting against British imperialism. He insisted that the working class must keep separate from the bourgeois nationalists who were incapable of waging a real struggle against British imperialism. It was not the Trotskyists but the Stalinists who subordinated themselves to the Indian national bourgeoisie, with the excuse that India was a colony of British imperialism.
The history of the last hundred years demonstrates that the national bourgeoisie of the underdeveloped capitalist countries is not capable of playing a progressive role anywhere. The theory of the permanent revolution explains that in the modern epoch the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution can only be carried out by the proletariat. That is a thousand times true of Argentina, where the bourgeoisie has had two hundred years to show what it can do, and has reduced a potentially rich and prosperous nation to a state of unparalleled misery and prostration. The rotten, counterrevolutionary Argentine bourgeoisie is not capable of carrying the nation forward. That is why the working class must take power and begin the task of transforming Argentina from the bottom up.
We do not have one policy for peace and another completely different policy for war. The policy of the Argentine Trotskyists during the Malvinas conflict should have been the continuation of the policy before the war: an intransigent policy of class independence and total opposition to the oligarchy and the Junta.
Dialectics and formalism
What is the nature of Argentina? Some “clever” individuals argue as follows: “The Socialist Appeal says that Argentina is not a semi-colonial country, so what is it, then? An imperialist state? But that is absurd!” Such a method of arguing is completely undialectical. It supposes that a state cannot be a semi-colonial state and an imperialist state at the same time. In fact, this is quite possible, and there have been many examples of this in history, starting with Russian Tsarism.
Formalists who lack an elementary knowledge of dialectics do not grasp the fact that it is possible for a state to have at the same time a semi-colonial and an imperialist character. They think in formal abstractions, fixed and immutable, such as “imperialism” and “colony”. They do not see that there can be transitional forms that combine the features of both, or that things can change into their opposite. They do not see things concretely, and that there are all sorts of intermediate forms and stages. Such people are organically incapable of thinking dialectically. As Engels said of metaphysicians, “Let thy communication be yea, yea; nay, nay, for whatsoever is more than this cometh of the Devil.”
As a matter of fact nature knows many transitional forms, which combine contradictory features. Engels himself did not believe reports that there existed an egg-laying mammal, until he saw a stuffed duck-billed platypus. Engels was honest and admitted he was wrong. Will those “clever” Marxists who do not understand how a country can combine the features of a colonial and imperialist state be as modest and admit their error?
In the capitalist jungle there are predators of all sorts and sizes: lions and tigers, but also jackals and hyenas. But they are all predators. The only difference is that some are stronger than others and capable of seizing larger and more appetising prey, leaving the weaker to fight over the bones. A colony that yesterday was an oppressed state strives to become strong and oppress other states, as Lenin pointed out. It is necessary to distinguish carefully between these phenomena if we are not to make serious mistakes in practice.
Tsarist Russia was undoubtedly a backward, poor, semi-feudal country, where the big majority of the population consisted of peasants only recently emancipated from serfdom. There were feudal survivals in agriculture. True, there were areas where industry existed in an advanced state as a result of the law of combined and uneven development. But overall, the country was a picture of the most shocking backwardness. By comparison, Argentina, even today, would be a highly developed nation. On the eve of the First World War, Russia was heavily dependent on loans and investments from more developed capitalist countries like Germany, Britain, France, Belgium and the USA. It therefore had the character of a backward semi-colony. At the same time, Lenin considered tsarist Russia to be one of the principal imperialist powers. This is a contradiction, but it is not the only example.
The fact that a country is economically backward and that it was once a colony of some imperialist power does not mean that it cannot itself develop imperialist aspirations and become an oppressive imperialist state. Dialectics explain that things can, and do, change into their opposite. The best example of this is the USA, which started out as an oppressed colony of Britain and has become the biggest imperialist state on earth. Poland was an oppressed colony for centuries, divided between the Russian and Austrian imperialist robbers. But as soon as they achieved independence after World War One, the Polish bourgeois had an imperialist agenda of its own, aiming to seize the Ukraine from Russia, and also acting as an agent of British and French imperialism in attacking the young and weak Soviet state.
The small states on the Balkans suffered colonial enslavement by the Turks for centuries. They finally got their independence towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. No sooner had the Serb and Bulgarian bourgeoisies raised themselves to the position of the ruling class than they commenced a series of bloody and predatory wars, in which the bourgeois gangsters from Greece and Romania enthusiastically participated. In the end, the Greek, Rumanian and Serb robbers seized territory from Bulgaria, which had done the lion’s share of the fighting against the Turks.
What was the nature of these wars and what position did the Marxists take in relation to them? They were reactionary, predatory wars fought out between ex-colonial bourgeoisies to further their imperialist ambitions. The same is true of Turkey, which has its own imperialist agenda, not only for Turkish Kurdistan and northern Cyprus, but for northern Iraq, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Only a blind man could fail to see this, and only a fool would argue that Turkey cannot be a (weak) imperialist state because it is a poor country and dependant on capital, loans and investments from the west. Sectarians laugh at the idea that there can be weak imperialist regimes. Let them ask the Kurds whether they think that Turkey is an imperialist regime. They will find it’s not so funny after all.
India and Pakistan are backward ex-colonial countries. In both countries the peasantry is the overwhelming majority of the population. After more than half a century of formal “independence”, they are more dependent on imperialism today than they were before they freed themselves from the shackles of direct imperialist rule. They can therefore be fairly described as semi-colonial states. Yet the Indian bourgeoisie acts in an imperialist way in Kashmir, Nagaland, Nepal and Bhutan. It oppresses national minorities (Assamese, Punjabis, Tamils). So India is at the same time a semi-colonial state and a weak imperialist power, at least on a regional basis.
The same can be said of Pakistan. It is even more backward than India, and even more dependant on world imperialism. There are many feudal survivals in agriculture. Yet Pakistan oppresses nationalities like the Sinhdis, Baluchis and Pashtoons. What is the nature of the wars between India and Pakistan? And what attitude must the Marxists take towards them? The answer is clear: these are reactionary imperialist wars, which have not an atom of progressive content and which we must oppose resolutely.
An even clearer example is Indonesia. Although it is more backward than Argentina, and has only been formally independent for about 50 years (as opposed to nearly 200 years), Indonesian capitalism has a particularly vicious and aggressive character. Like tsarist Russia it has colonies, which it brutally oppresses. And what are we to say about Indonesia’s seizure of East Timor? That was a colony of Portugal, which Indonesia claimed as part of its national territory, as its “unalienable right.” It annexed East Timor against the will of its inhabitants and brutally oppressed it for decades.
What was the relationship between Indonesia and East Timor? It was an imperialist relationship. East Timor was an enslaved colony of Indonesia. The fact that Indonesia itself was, and remains, a semi-colonial nation, dependent on world imperialism does not change this in the slightest. What would one think of an Indonesian Marxist who supported the annexation of East Timor on the grounds that “Indonesia is a poor oppressed nation”? To ask the question is to answer it. When Indonesia was an oppressed colony of the Dutch, it was our duty to support its national liberation struggle to gain freedom and self-determination. That was a genuine national liberation movement. But does the fact that Indonesia used to be a colony give it the right to pursue an aggressive and expansionist policy against its neighbours, to annex and enslave them? No, it does not and cannot have such a “right”.
The history of Latin America furnishes us with many similar examples. Most of the nations of Latin America have been formally independent since the first part of the nineteenth century. It was the dream of Simon Bolivar that the liberated colonies should form a Latin American Federation, and that was a correct idea. But the weak and corrupt bourgeoisies of Latin America were not capable of carrying out this necessary historical task. Instead they became the local office boys of imperialism – first British then US imperialism. Latin America was deliberately Balkanised, bled white and impoverished.
Is it true that Latin America is exploited by imperialism? Yes, it is a hundred times true. Is it necessary to fight against imperialism? Of course, it is. But to imagine that the weak, rotten, reactionary bourgeois of Argentina, Bolivia or Brazil can do this is nonsense. The only way forward for Latin America is on the road of socialist revolution. The working class must take power into its own hands. That is the only way forward. Anything that helps to raise the understanding of the workers of Latin America in this sense is progressive; anything that blunts the consciousness of the proletariat and takes its attention away from the central task of power is reactionary.
Of all the weapons in the hands of the bourgeoisie, the most powerful and pernicious is nationalism. This is particularly true in Latin America. By this, I do not mean the national pride that one finds in the workers of Argentina, Chile or Bolivia. This is a natural and healthy feeling, an expression of all that is living and progressive in a country. But the nationalism of the oligarchy, of the bankers, capitalists and generals of Latin America – that is another matter. The kind of nationalism that is always greedy for territory and raw materials, that teaches the people of one country to hate and despise those of another country – that is reactionary.
Since the achievement of formal independence there have been many wars in Central and South America. These were bloody wars where the workers and peasants of one country slaughtered those of another country in the interests of their “own” landlords and capitalists. The War of the Triple Alliance (1865-70), in which Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay fought Paraguay, was a typical example. In this war virtually the entire able-bodied male population of Paraguay was slaughtered, and the country was divided up between the victors. Likewise, in the Pacific War of 1879-83 Chile deprived Bolivia of her access to the sea by an act of naked aggression. There are many more examples.
How are we to characterise these wars? They are like the second Balkan War – vicious and predatory wars in which the bourgeoisie of a given country, having won formal independence, seeks aggrandisement at the expense of its neighbours, seizing land and mineral wealth. What is this but imperialism? A weak imperialism, an imperialism that cannot go beyond certain regional limits, but imperialism nonetheless.
At this point we can already hear the rumbling from Buenos Aires. Luis Oviedo cannot wait to defend his country (that is to say, his bourgeoisie) against the accusation of imperialist ambitions. “What’s this! he will shout. Lenin said that imperialism was the highest phase of monopoly capitalism and it is only meant to describe the activities of rich, developed counties that export capital.” Yes, Lenin did say that. But he by no means circumscribed his definition of imperialism to the export of capital. In its most general sense, imperialism is the conquest of foreign markets, territory and raw materials. To underline the point it is sufficient to point out that among the five or six main imperialist powers described by Lenin was tsarist Russia – a poor country that did not export a single kopeck’s worth of capital.
Luis Oviedo tries to place all the responsibility for fighting against imperialism on the shoulders of the British Marxists. We accept without reserve our duty in this respect, which we have always attempted to do. But is this a duty that ONLY applies to the Marxists of the metropolitan countries? Are the Argentine Marxists exempted from their responsibilities by virtue of the fact that Argentina was a colony 200 years ago? Lenin would have answered as follows: let the British Marxists fight against the British bourgeoisie and let the Argentine Marxists fight against their own ruling class.
We maintained – and still maintain – that the Malvinas war was a reactionary war on both sides. On the British side this is not a difficult position to maintain. The crimes of British imperialism are well known. This has always been clear to the British Marxists. For the Argentine Marxists to stand against Argentine chauvinism may be more difficult, but it is just as important and maybe even more so. The reactionary Argentine bourgeoisie is accustomed to hiding behind the screen of a “poor oppressed nation”, and appealing to the (natural and progressive) anti-imperialist instincts of the Argentine workers to undermine their revolutionary class-consciousness and draw them behind the bourgeois in an alleged “anti-imperialist” bloc.
This was the ideological basis of Peronism, which for decades confused and deceived the workers with its false “anti-imperialist” demagogy. Nothing could be more harmful to the cause of the Argentine revolution than this. The slightest concession to this “patriotic” demagogy would mean the ruin of the revolution. The Malvinas issue is periodically dragged up by the bourgeoisie in order to perpetuate this harmful trend. Even as I write these lines, Kirchner, a very cunning representative of the bourgeoisie, is once again raising this question. If the Argentine Left makes concessions on such a question it leaves open the door to social patriotism and class collaboration under the banner of “national unity” – that is, the unity of the horse and its rider, the unity of the workers and the bourgeoisie. Unfortunately, the fact that the Argentine Marxists, by continually harping the idea that they are a poor oppressed country, make a concession to bourgeois nationalism and play into the hands of the bourgeoisie.
In answer to the nationalist demagogy of Kirchner, the Argentinian Marxists should say: "Mr. President, the working people of Argentina need jobs, bread and houses. You cannot provide this. Instead you offer us the Malvinas. You deceived us in this way once before and we do not intend to be deceived again. We will fight imperialism in our own way and in the interest of our own class. That means we will fight for the expropriation of the property of the British and American imperialists and the property of the Argentinian oligarchy, which you and your government represent."
Does the corrupt, greedy and reactionary Argentine oligarchy have imperialist ambitions in Latin America? Of course, they do! Their territorial ambitions are not confined to a few rocky islands in the Atlantic. In the past they had imperialist designs on Uruguay and Paraguay. At present they claim a big slice of the Antarctic and part of Tierra del Fuego that belongs to Chile. The two countries nearly went to war over the Beagle Channel before the Junta decided that it might be safer to invade the Malvinas. So let us ask the Argentine Left a question: where would you have stood on the issue of war with Chile? According to you, Chile cannot be an imperialist nation, so presumably it is yet another poor semi-colony, just like Argentina. Do you therefore stand for revolutionary defeatism, or would you again fall into the trap of social-patriotism?
And there is always the possibility that the bourgeoisie – whether in Argentina or some other country – can start beating the war-drums again when faced with the danger of a revolutionary overthrow. Under such circumstance, what will the Left do? Will they once again rush to the banner of patriotism and “national unity”? If so, then the revolution is doomed in advance.
The danger of war
Marxists must not play with war. War is a very serious question and can have very serious consequences. We must therefore be careful never to allow ourselves to get entangled with the kind of military adventures that the bourgeoisie – not only in the advanced imperialist nations but also in the so-called Third World – often uses to confuse and disorient the proletariat and derail the revolution.
The war danger in Latin America is more real than most people imagine. US imperialism is watching events south of the Rio Grande with growing alarm. Washington does not want to get involved militarily in Latin America. They have their hands full in Iraq. On the other hand, Latin America is a vital area for them. In particular, they are worried about developments in Venezuela and Bolivia. If things get "out of hand" in those countries, it is quite possible that Washington will attempt to incite foreign military intervention from neighbouring states. Already there have been menacing noises from Colombia, whose government is in the pocket of Washington, against Venezuela.
Even more dangerous is the position in Bolivia. It is true that Bolivia was robbed of her coastline by Chile. But the noisy campaign being waged by certain political circles in Bolivia can serve as a pretext for armed intervention against the Bolivian revolution. To the question: does Bolivia have a right to an exit to the sea? We answer yes, it has such a right. But we must add a warning: under the present circumstances, a war would be disastrous for Bolivia and the cause of the working class in all Latin America.
To present Galtieri's military adventure as a war of national liberation in any form is just a joke. Who were they supposed to be liberating? The islanders? Of course not, they regarded the invasion as an act of oppression. Maybe it was for the liberation of the people of Argentina? On the contrary, if Galtieri had succeeded, the Junta would have been able to consolidate its hold on power, at least for a temporary period. The day after the victory parades the old repression would have returned, along with Astiz and other military "heroes", receiving from a grateful fatherland the medals for bravery in the face of the enemy.
This reactionary war was not in the interests of the working class either in Argentina or in Britain. This was pointed out by Ted Grant in 1982:
"Neither Argentinean nor British workers had anything to gain from this conflict. A victory for either side would mean the strengthening of their own ruling class, and all the while the Falkland Islanders were mere pawns in the imperialist game. Thatcher's foreign policy, like that at home, was that of the interests of British capitalism. This was not a war as they claimed of democracy versus "fascism", but a war to defend the power and prestige of British imperialism". (The Falklands Crisis - A Socialist Answer, by Ted Grant, May 1982, my emphasis, AW)
The British military victory was no victory for the British working class, who paid a high price for it. The victory of Argentina would have certainly liberated the people of Britain from the rule of Thatcher. She would have been immediately ejected, and we would have been spared two decades of Conservative rule, the crushing of the miners and the printers, the anti-trade union laws and so on. That did not happen, and the results of the Malvinas victory were very negative for the British working class.
But for the Argentine working class the military defeat meant the collapse of the Junta and the opening chapter of a movement in the direction of revolution that has still not been closed. The defeat of the invasion was the start of the Argentine revolution.
The way one poses a question will frequently determine the answer. Frankly, the question is being posed in a demagogic way. Let us now pose it correctly. Is it the duty of Marxists to support weak colonial and semi-colonial nations against attempts of big imperialist powers to crush, invade and enslave them? Of course it is, without the slightest doubt. Is it the duty of Marxists to support each and every military adventure launched by unstable military dictatorships for reactionary purposes? Most emphatically, it is not. It is necessary to distinguish carefully between the two things, or else we will fall into a trap.
From one mistake to another
The Junta prepared a trap for the Argentine Left, which many people fell straight into. Twenty two years later it is time to learn the lessons. He who does not learn from history will be doomed to repeat it. The same people who capitulated to the bourgeoisie before can do so again at a critical moment – and with the same excuses.
Many on the Left in Argentina allowed themselves to be carried away by a wave of temporary patriotic intoxication. They lost their bearings and were blown off course. That should be frankly and honestly admitted. But it appears that the leaders of the PO are not capable of admitting a mistake and profiting from it. As a result they go from one mistake to the next.
In Afghanistan they advocated a "military united front with the Taliban" – whatever that might mean. A united front is a front for action. If a military united front means anything at all, it must mean an actual fighting agreement. How many members of the PO went out to fight in Afghanistan? We do not know. How many rifles, bullets and bombs were sent to Kabul? On this subject also we have no information. But without this, the "military united front" is reduced to a mere phrase with no real content. This kind of terminological radicalism does not get us very far! Without the military element (which has clearly been tacked on for dramatic effect) we are left with a political "united front" with the Taliban – that is, with the forces of reaction in Afghanistan: the forces that have killed Communists and are implacably opposed to everything progressive.
We opposed the invasion of Afghanistan and exposed the imperialists with every means at our disposal. But we never gave any credence to the monstrous Taliban. The PO can afford the luxury of such demagogy because it does not have any forces working in this area. If they did, they would perhaps proceed with more caution. It is well that the PO gives its support to the Taliban from a safe distance, because if they were within shooting distance, they would soon be dead. The whole point is that the Taliban was incapable of waging a serious war against the US imperialists, just as the Junta was incapable of fighting the British imperialists.
A wrong position on the national question inevitably leads to the abandonment of a class position and capitulation to reaction. An extreme case of this is the British SWP, which, under the pretence of "fighting imperialism" has capitulated to the Islamic fundamentalists – that is, to the forces of black reaction in the Middle East. This is in direct contradiction to the position of Lenin and Trotsky in relation to the tasks of the revolutionaries in the East.
Even where the revolutionaries support the struggle of weak and oppressed countries against the attempts of the imperialists to invade, occupy and enslave them, it is necessary to maintain an implacable ideological struggle against reactionary tendencies. This is made clear in the theses of the Second Congress Of The Communist International, 5 June 1920. In the Draft Theses on National and Colonial Questions, written by Lenin, we read the following: "second, the need for a struggle against the clergy and other influential reactionary and medieval elements in backward countries;
third, the need to combat Pan-Islamism and similar trends, which strive to combine the liberation movement against European and American imperialism with an attempt to strengthen the positions of the khans, landowners, mullahs, etc."
The national liberation struggle in Afghanistan will succeed to the degree that the revolutionary left wing defeats the Taliban and wins the leadership of that struggle. What is required is a consistent struggle against the imperialist occupation of Afghanistan, combined with support to those elements inside Afghanistan who are fighting for democracy and a workers' and peasants' government. They will receive the support of the Pakistan Marxists, who have always combined the struggle against imperialism with an implacable fight against Islamic fundamentalism, which, after imperialism (with which it has frequently been allied), constitutes the principal force of counterrevolution in the region.
How to solve the Malvinas question – and how not to solve it
Those groups in Argentina that inclined towards a social-patriotic stand on the war try to ridicule the position taken by the British Marxists on the war. Naturally! The opportunists always try to ridicule those who remain firm on a class position. They always try to show that it is "unrealistic" and "utopian", or even a kind of "socialist colonialism". But the fact is that the kind of "practical" policy adopted by them – namely, uncritical acceptance of the reactionary military adventure of the Junta, did not solve the Malvinas question, and could never solve it. Twenty two years later the islands remain firmly under the control of British imperialism. This problem can never be solved by the bourgeoisie, despite all the patriotic demagogy and hot air.
Another solution is necessary. It was explained by the Communist International, which, at its Second Congress in 1920, stated: "Under present-day international conditions there is no salvation for dependent and weak nations except in a union of Soviet republics." (Draft Theses on National and Colonial Questions) That is the essence of the matter.
The way to solve the Malvinas problem is not through wars (the only method known to the bourgeoisie) but through the socialist revolution and the creation of a Latin American Socialist Federation. The workers of different countries have no interests in stealing land or resources from anyone. In the context of a Federation, all such problems can be discussed and resolved in an amicable way. On the basis of capitalism, however, no solution is possible, and new wars and conflicts inevitable.
The Left in Argentina and other Latin American countries will never succeed until it rids itself of nationalist prejudices and stands firmly on the basis of internationalism. Patriotism is extremely dangerous for the working class because it blurs the class lines and creates confusion that can only benefit the bourgeoisie. It fosters the illusion that the "Nation" stands above all classes, whereas in fact there is no such thing as the Nation – only rich and poor, exploiters and exploited.
The day when nationalism could play a progressive role in Latin America is long past, because the progressive period of the bourgeois democratic revolution is long past. The Argentine bourgeoisie – and all the other bourgeoisies of Latin America – have had almost two centuries to show what they can do. They have been weighed in the balance of history and found wanting. On a capitalist basis there is no future for the peoples of Latin America. Only the working class can lead Latin America out of the morass of poverty, hunger and humiliation into which the bourgeoisie has led it.
The only revolution possible in Latin America is the socialist revolution. Our programme, policies and slogans must reflect this indisputable fact. Above all, the Latin American revolution must stand firmly for internationalism. The proletariat must inscribe on its red flag the slogan of the Socialist Federation of Latin America as the only way out of the present mess.
As a matter of fact, even a Latin American Socialist Federation would not be enough to ensure the final victory of socialism. What is needed is a socialist World Federation. However, the unification of the economies of all Latin America would release a powerful potential. The colossal wealth of the continent could be exploited for the first time in a planned and harmonious manner on the basis of a common socialist plan of production, democratically run by the workers themselves.
Addendum: Marxism and the Irish Question
[Without waiting for our reply, in the latest issue of Prensa Obrera, Luis Oviedo returns to the attack, this time with a furious diatribe on Ireland. So as not to disappoint him, we add a small footnote on this subject. Those who wish to know more about our position on Ireland can read my book The Revolutionary Dialectic of Irish Republicanism, which is available on www.marxist.com.]
"In North Ireland (the principal colonial position still remaining to the withered empire of Her Gracious Majesty)," writes Luis Oviedo, "they do not demand the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of British troops. For decades, he has qualified the IRA in the same terms as the British imperialist press, as "terrorists," "criminals," on the same plane as the fascist bands of the pro-British "unionists." Socialist Appeal has distinguished itself, among the currents of the English left, for not participating (actually, for repudiating) the demonstrations and mobilizations held in London in defence of the national struggle of Ireland."
The crimes of British imperialism have caused immense suffering, wars and bloodshed everywhere: in Ireland, India, Cyprus, and Palestine. Their policy was that of "divide and rule", setting one religious or national communities against another in order to dominate both. The partition of Ireland was a terrible crime of British imperialism, as was the even more bloody partition of India. The British Marxists have always been in favour of a united Ireland, but, following in the footsteps of James Connolly, we have also understood that this goal can only be achieved as part of the struggle for a socialist Ireland and a socialist Britain. It can only be achieved by class and revolutionary methods.
The sects internationally constantly harp on about our position on Ireland. If this were not so serious it would be comical. We have nothing to apologise for in relation to our position on Ireland, any more than we have anything to apologise for in relation to the Malvinas question. On the other hand, all the groups who have for years tail-ended the Provisional IRA now have a lot of explaining to do, since the people they so enthusiastically supported have openly betrayed the cause of Irish unification.
Maybe this is why in recent years these ladies and gentlemen have had very little to say about Ireland. The signing of the Good Friday Agreement and the subsequent ceasefire of the IRA after 30 years of so-called "armed struggle" has placed them all in an embarrassing position. All this time they had been acting as a fan club for the Provisional IRA, whose actions they uncritically and enthusiastically applauded. Now they have fallen silent.
The Good Friday Agreement – which we, together with the Irish Republican socialists, rejected – was an attempt on the part of the Provisionals to reach a deal with British imperialism that excluded Irish unification. The "friends of the Provisional IRA" have nothing to say about this. They cannot bring themselves to admit what is now clear even to a blind man – that after 30 years, the strategy, methods and tactics of non-socialist Republicanism have ended in complete disaster. The leaders of Sinn Fein who yesterday talked about reuniting Ireland with the bomb and the gun have now exchanged the armed struggle for a minister's portfolio.
This question is being studiously avoided by all the organisations who imagine that they have been supporting a national liberation struggle in Ireland. In reality they have been supporting no such thing. They have been supporting a disastrous policy and tactics that, so far from helping the cause of Irish unification, has undermined it totally. Though the leaders of Sinn Fein try to publicly deny it, the unification of Ireland is off the agenda, and will remain off the agenda for a long time.
This should not surprise us. We predicted it a long time ago. The defeat of the so-called "armed struggle" of the Provisional IRA – which was neither more nor less than individual terrorism – was inevitable from the start. In order to succeed, a guerrilla struggle has to have the support of the masses. But in Northern Ireland the masses are divided into two communities – Protestants and Catholics (Nationalists and Loyalists). The Catholics are in a minority. The Protestants are traditionally hostile to unification, and resist it. The Provisionals thought they could force the Protestants into a united Ireland by bombing and shooting. That was a serious mistake.
The only result of 30 years of individual terrorism, apart from the deaths of thousands of young fighters, has been to split the working class of the Six Counties right down the middle, intensifying the madness of religious sectarianism and the mutual hatreds and mistrust to an unprecedented level. How many people in Argentina know that there is a wall in Belfast that physically divides the Protestant and Catholic people? The recent elections have underlined the extreme sectarian polarisation that now exists. On this basis, no progress towards unification is possible. The perspective of a united Ireland is further away now than any other time in history. The methods of the Provisional IRA have therefore had diametrically opposite results to those intended.
What does this prove? It proves what Leon Trotsky explained long ago: that in the modern epoch, the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution can only be solved by the working class, through the socialist revolution. Just as the Argentine bourgeoisie is incapable of solving the problem of the Malvinas, so the rotten Irish bourgeoisie cannot solve the border issue. Nor can the nationalist petty bourgeoisie solve it. The experience of the past three decades is conclusive proof of that. Only the proletariat can solve this, and will solve it in passing, when it takes power into its hands in a Workers' Republic. There is absolutely no possibility of solving it on a capitalist basis. James Connolly, the great Irish Marxist, pointed this out long ago, and he was right.
The British Marxists and Ireland
For the solution of what remains of the national question in Ireland (the border question), the prior condition is to unite the working class in struggle, and this can only be achieved by a return to the revolutionary traditions and programme of Larkin and Connolly - the programme of the WORKERS' REPUBLIC. So long as capitalism dominates Ireland there will be sectarian division and strife, which will undermine and destroy the movement for Irish unification. We have always maintained a firm revolutionary class position. By contrast, most of the other groups on the Left have vacillated between opportunism and ultraleftism: from supporting the sending of British troops to Northern Ireland in 1969 to capitulating to the disastrous policies and tactics of the Provisional IRA.
Luis Oviedo shows his complete ignorance when he says that we do not support the withdrawal of British troops from Northern Ireland. As a matter of fact, Socialist Appeal (or rather, Militant, as we were then known) "has distinguished itself, among the currents of the English left" by being the only ones who opposed the sending of British troops to Northern Ireland.
In 1969 most of the British Left – including all those who later supported the "Troops Out" Movement – were completely in favour of sending in the British army. That was true of the Labour Left, the Communist Party and the SWP, and also the leaders of the civil rights movement in the North. They argued that the army was being sent to defend the Catholics. An honourable exception was our tendency - the Marxist tendency in the British Labour Party, at that time grouped around the Militant, and today represented by Socialist Appeal, which came down firmly against the sending of British troops to the North. We wrote at the time: "The call made for the entry of British troops will turn to vinegar in the mouths of some of the civil rights leaders. The troops have been sent in to impose a solution in the interests of British and Ulster big business." (Militant, September 1969.)
At the Labour Party conference in the autumn of 1969 our comrades moved Emergency Resolution No. 2, which states:
"This Conference declares its opposition to the sectarian attacks on the Derry and Belfast workers which took place in August of this year.
"It condemns this action on the part of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, sections of the B Specials and Paisleyite thugs.
"It affirms its support for those sections of the Irish Labour Movement, particularly the Derry Labour Party, which have attempted to unite both Protestant and Catholic workers against the common enemy, the capitalist class, whether they be Orange or Green, and calls upon the trade unions of Ireland to contain the sectarian terror by the organization of Joint Defence Committees comprising of both Protestant and Catholic workers.
"Conference believes that British imperialism and its supporters in Ireland have deliberately used and helped to maintain the religious sectarianism in order to ensure its investments in both North and South Ireland on the basis of the policy of 'divide and rule."
The movers of the resolution stated in the debate:
"We have got to back up our comrades in Northern Ireland, we have got to demand, as they do, the withdrawal of British troops. British troops have never acted in the interests of the working class in any country."
Is this clear enough, comrade Oviedo? The position of the Marxist tendency was clear and unambiguous. It is printed in black and white. However, the rest of the British Left would not dare republish what they wrote at the time. They played a lamentable role. Having supported the sending of British troops to Northern Ireland (allegedly to help the Catholics), they then performed a 180-degree somersault and uncritically backed the bombing campaign of the Provisional IRA.
A particularly pernicious role was played for decades by the ultra left sects in Britain and internationally on the question of Ireland. These ladies and gentlemen interpreted "support for the national liberation struggle" to mean uncritical support for the Provisional IRA. From the safety of their middle class flats, they cheered the "armed struggle", although none of them were in any personal danger.
The Provisionals were not a revolutionary but a right wing tendency, completely hostile to socialism. The Provisional IRA was set up in 1969 in order to split the Official IRA whom they regarded as "Communists". They were given big sums of money and guns by the most reactionary right wing elements of the Irish bourgeoisie – the Blaney-Houghey wing of Fianna Fail. The reason was that the counterrevolutionary Irish bourgeoisie was as terrified as the British ruling class of the revolutionary situation in Northern Ireland. The aim of these people was to derail the revolutionary movement in the North by diverting it along nationalist and military lines.
Although they played no role in the movement of the masses in the North in 1968-9, the Provisionals were able to take it over because they possessed the organization and the arms that the aroused youth of the North were looking for. Despite all their "revolutionary" demagogy and talk of "armed struggle", from the standpoint of ideology the Provos were - and remain - a bourgeois right wing trend in Republicanism. In the past they even burned Marxist books. In their enthusiasm to back the Provos, the sects forget these little "details".
In general, they make a lot of noise about the "national question" in Ireland and elsewhere, without even bothering to study it. Isn't it enough to shout "down with imperialism"? No, comrades, it is not enough! If we are serious in our desire to fight imperialism (as we are) then it is necessary to analyse every situation concretely, to see what is progressive and what is reactionary in a given movement, and to propose concrete tactics and slogans that are appropriate to the given situation. They have clearly made no effort to understand what has gone on in Ireland for the past 30 years and therefore they have no idea of the real situation in the Six Counties.
Marxism and terrorism
Luis Oviedo continues his diatribe, unconcerned by the total absence of any quotations or any other proof to back up his wild assertions: "For decades, he (Alan Woods) has qualified the IRA in the same terms as the British imperialist press, as 'terrorists,' 'criminals,' on the same plane as the fascist bands of the pro-British 'unionists.'"
As they say in the media, why let the facts spoil a good story? Is it true that we attacked the IRA "in the same terms as the British imperialist press"? No, it is not true. We always placed the blame for the horrors in Ireland firmly at the door of British imperialism. However, we also made an implacable criticism of the methods and tactics of the IRA, which were indeed disastrous, and which undermined the movement and played right into the hands of British imperialism.
The individual terrorism of the Provisional IRA had the most negative results both for the Irish national liberation struggle and for the working class. Marxism has always opposed individual terrorism. Is it necessary to repeat this ABC proposition? It seems that it is. This is a thousand times more important in Argentina than other countries because of the terrible damage that was caused to the revolutionary movement by the tactics of individual terrorism that were pursued by ultra-left and so-called "Trotskyist" groups like the ERP that were shamefully backed and encouraged by Mandel and the United Secretariat. We denounced this at the time and we repeat this denunciation now.
As a result of this harmful policy thousands of courageous young cadres were destroyed and the revolution was derailed, with the most appalling results. The tactics of the Provisionals had similar consequences. This led to the tragic deaths of many courageous young people but did not advance the cause of Irish reunification one inch. On the contrary, it has set the cause back for decades. What has Luis Oviedo and the leaders of the PO got to say about these methods? Do they think that all this was a good thing, a real revolutionary policy, something to be actively encouraged and imitated? If so, let me tell you that practically nobody in the North of Ireland today will agree with you – including the Provisional IRA. For a Marxist to advocate the method of individual terrorism is an abomination.
Those "Marxists" who eagerly backed the IRA's bombing campaign, which they falsely presented as "the armed struggle" were not helping but harming the cause of the Irish people. The harm done by this campaign is now recognised by everyone – not least by the leaders of Sinn Fein, who have abandoned it in favour of ministerial jobs. We have always opposed such tactics, as did Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. Already in the 19th century, Marx and Engels sharply criticised the Irish Fenians for their use of terrorist tactics. On November 29th, 1867, Engels wrote to Marx:
"As regards the Fenians you are quite right. The beastliness of the English must not make us forget that the leaders of this sect are mostly asses and partly exploiters and we cannot in any way make ourselves responsible for the stupidities which occur in every conspiracy. And they are certain to happen."
Engels was soon proved right. Just two weeks later, on the 13th December 1867, a group of Fenians set off an explosion in London's Clerkenwell Prison in an unsuccessful attempt to free their imprisoned comrades. The explosion destroyed several neighbouring houses and wounded 120 people. Predictably, the incident unleashed a wave of anti-Irish feeling in the population. The following day Marx wrote indignantly to Engels:
"The last exploit of the Fenians in Clerkenwell was a very stupid thing. The London masses, who have shown great sympathy for Ireland, will be made wild by it and driven into the arms of the government party. One cannot expect the London proletariat to allow themselves to be blown up in honour of the Fenian emissaries. There is always a kind of fatality about such a secret, melodramatic sort of conspiracy."
A few days later, on December 19th, Engels replied as follows: "The stupid affair in Clerkenwell was obviously the work of a few specialised fanatics; it is the misfortune of all conspiracies that they lead to such stupidities, because 'after all, something must happen, after all something must be done'. In particular, there has been a lot of bluster in America about this blowing up and arson business, and then a few asses come and instigate such nonsense. Moreover, these cannibals are generally the greatest cowards, like this Allen, who seems to have already turned Queen's evidence, and then the idea of liberating Ireland by setting a London tailor's shop on fire!"
What does comrade Oviedo think about these statements by the founders of scientific socialism? Does he think that Marx and Engels also betrayed the cause of the Irish national liberation struggle because they denounced the counterproductive method of individual terrorism? But all the great teachers of our movement had the same position. During the First World War Lenin wrote: "There must be propaganda against isolated terrorist actions and for linking up the struggle of the revolutionary section of the army with the broad movement of the proletariat and of the exploited population generally." (The Tasks of the Left Zimmerwaldists, Collected Works, vol. 21, p. 144.) In the writings of Lenin and Trotsky we can find numerous passages in the same spirit.
While rejecting the policies, methods and tactics of the Provisional IRA, the British Marxist tendency now represented by Socialist Appeal and the Marxist.com website has held a consistent internationalist position on Ireland. We opposed the sending of British troops to Northern Ireland, we denounced the crimes of British imperialism in the Six Counties. At the time of Bloody Sunday we carried on the front page of Militant in big letters "Derry – this was murder!" We defended the rights of Irish prisoners and opposed the vicious conduct of Thatcher towards the Irish hunger strikers.
What we were not prepared to do – and this is why the opportunist sects try to attack us – is to tail-end the Provisional IRA. History has proved that we were right. Though they swore by Lenin and Trotsky in every other sentence, the Left and "Trotskyist" groups that enthusiastically backed the Provos did considerable damage to the Irish cause in Britain and internationally. They demonstrated a complete lack of understanding of both the national liberation struggle and of the Leninist position towards it. In addition through their words and their deeds they damaged the perception of Marxism in the eyes of activists in Ireland.
Luis Oviedo reproaches us "for not participating (actually, for repudiating) the demonstrations and mobilizations held in London in defence of the national struggle of Ireland."
What demonstrations and mobilizations is comrade Oviedo talking about? Maybe he means the activities called by the so-called Troops Out Movement? I have already explained our position on the question of the troops. We were always in favour of withdrawing the troops, but we linked this to the demand for a workers' defence force, based on the unions, to protect the working class from the sectarian madmen of both sides (yes, comrade Oviedo, of both sides). In other words, we posed the question in class terms.
What comrade Oviedo forgets is that the middle class ladies and gentlemen who paraded around the streets of London shouting "troops out" were the very same people who in 1969 were shouting "troops in!" You do not believe me? Then please read the articles (including editorials) in the SWP's paper of that time. These people never had a principled position on Ireland or anything else. They tail-ended the British imperialists in 1969. Then they tail-ended the Provisional IRA in the so-called Troops Out Movement. Now they are tail-ending the Islamic Fundamentalists. With people of this kind we are not in the habit of collaborating. We maintained an independent position – a class position – which we consistently advocated in the trade union and labour movement, in Britain and in the North and South of Ireland.
In the end our position has been completely vindicated by events, while that of the petty bourgeois sects has, as we predicted, ended in disaster. Having applauded the Provo's reactionary and counterproductive bombing campaigns, which contributed to the sectarian divide and completely alienated British workers, the sects and the left reformists were left with their mouths hanging open when the Provo leadership signed up to the Good Friday Agreement. Socialist Appeal was almost alone on the Left in Britain in opposing the Good Friday Agreement as a deception and a betrayal, unlike our opportunist critics who have nothing to say about it.
Let us make our position clear, so that comrade Oviedo will understand it. We stand for the reunification of Ireland. But this can only be achieved as a 32-County Workers' Republic. This position, we are pleased to say, is defended by the left wing of the Irish Republicans – the Republican socialists, who, like ourselves, stand for the ideas of James Connolly. The genuine ideas of Marxism, which we have consistently defended, are known to the best of the activists in the Republican movement, who have shown a lively interest in them. By contrast, those British sectarians who capitulated to the nationalist demagogy and individual terrorism of the Provisionals are regarded with well-earned contempt.
Postscript: On Pierre Broué
There seems to be a long list of things that Luis Oviedo does not like. Moreover, it seems to be growing longer all the time. His dislike of Arabs, Turks and Englishmen is already well known. Now, for some reason, he adds grannies to the list. (See "...And grandmother had a baby!"). As far as I know most grannies are very nice, harmless old ladies who knit socks and are not generally inclined to give birth, so this allusion is slightly mystifying. But I suppose my comrade and friend Pierre Broué gets off rather lightly in being described as a "granny." Whatever the feminists may think of this, it may be thought by some to be slightly preferable to a counterrevolutionary imperialist.
Nevertheless, I am not sure that Pierre will be altogether happy with this, and other compliments, with which Luis Oviedo has regaled him. If comrade Oviedo had in mind Pierre's age, then it is true that he is not a young man, being a veteran of the Trotskyist movement, which he served loyally and well ever since he joined in the 1940s, after a period of fighting in the French maquis. His books are the finest that have ever been produced on the history of our movement, and his knowledge of the ideas, policies, methods and traditions of Trotskyism is second to none. Pierre is therefore well able to defend himself against such attacks, and therefore I will leave it to him, in the certainty that for a man of his ability to dispose of this kind of arguments is about as difficult as taking candy from a baby. The PO should realise that bad temper and insults are really no substitute for rational argument.