My enemy's enemy

While the establishment celebrates the 25th anniversary of the British victory in the Falklands war, Jim Moody looks back at the role of the left

On April 2 1982, Argentina seized the British-governed Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) in the south Atlantic. How did the British left respond? Well, hardly in a principled Marxist fashion, mostly preferring either to support the Galtieri military regime against the Thatcher government or, alternatively, in effect taking sides with British imperialism.

There are two kinds of wars: reactionary ones, including those fought between imperialists and other exploiters for the spoils; and progressive ones - waged by the oppressed against their oppressors. Communists recognise the justice, necessity and progressive role of the latter sort of wars: indeed, we openly support all such rebellions of the oppressed against the oppressor.

However, the Falklands/Malvinas conflict fell, most definitely, into the former category. The principled, communist position was, therefore, to call for the defeat of one's own bourgeoisie and to take advantage of any weakness of the ruling class during the crisis. This principled position was applicable to revolutionaries both in Britain and Argentina.

Although Argentina was first to launch its attack, the British state immediately sent a task force to defend its prestige and its reassert its world imperialist role. Needless to say, the Argentinean seizure of the Falklands was not carried out as part of a war of national unification or liberation from imperialism. Argentina was then and is now a medium-developed capitalist country and, although subject to imperialist exploitation, had distinct imperialist ambitions itself.

Argentina has long been one of the richest countries in Latin America. Before World War I it was in effect an unofficial British colony. A role subsequently taken over by the US. Capital was exported from the metropoles on a large scale and a sophisticated agro-industrial complex built. Industrial production in the early 1980s accounted for over 45% of  GDP; and the mass of rural population were not peasants, but were employed as wage labour. Aside from the influx of foreign capital, domestic monopoly and finance capital emerged. Not that Argentina escaped its position of dependence. Indeed in the 20th century the country has proved to be chronically unstable. There were a whole series of Bonapartisms and military juntas. Showing that the bourgeoisie cannot control in the 'normal' way.

The Falklands has to be seen in this context - the invasion was an 'anti-imperialist' stunt aimed at diverting internal pressure away from the increasingly unpopular and internally divided military regime, which came to power in a counterrevolutionary coup in 1976. Argentina's military was obviously totally incapable of any kind of progressive role in the Falklands. A junta which, under president Leopoldo Galtieri, had butchered 20,000 of its own citizens and could not bring itself to admit the fate of 'the disappeared' was hardly going to bring liberation and democratic rights to the Falklanders.

What is the communist attitude to disputes over sovereignty between 'slave-holding nations' and to wars of annexation? We utterly oppose the machinations of imperialist and proto-imperialist rivals and support Lenin's principled position: the right of self-determination even in extremis. The Falklanders, even though there are only a couple of thousand of them, even though we want to quickly see the back of all such residues of empire, should have the right to decide their fate. It is certainly possible that the Falklands/Malvinas might eventually integrate with Argentina, but it would be a grave injustice if this were done by forced annexation rather than voluntarily.

However, recognition of their right to self-determination does not translate into communist support for their desire to be more British than the British, let alone any actions by British imperialism to maintain a south Atlantic outpost. Our starting point is not, of course, a few thousand Falkland islanders. It is the international working class and it is that which leads us to demand the withdrawal of all British troops from abroad.

Workers in Argentina certainly needed to expose the cynicism of the Galtieri regime and to call for its defeat. In carrying out this task, they needed to declare their support for the right of self-determination for the Falkland islanders. Only then could they hope to win the support of the Falklanders for the Argentine revolution and bring about the voluntary unity of the peoples.

What was the reaction of the left in Britain? Needless to say, the leadership of the Labour Party under leftwinger Michael Foot came out in full support of Thatcher's imperialist crusade to recapture the Falklands. Foot's reputation as a so-called 'peacemonger' was utterly destroyed when he fell in after some initial (and hypocritical) hesitation behind the war drive. Tailing him, however, were the forerunners of today's Socialist Party in England and Wales, the Militant Tendency, which at that time was easily the largest entrist organisation working in the Labour Party.

Desperately trying to keep its foothold within Labour, Militant declared: "The labour movement should be mobilised to force a general election to open the way for the return of a Labour government to implement socialist policies at home and abroad. Victory of a socialist government in Britain would immediately transform the situation in relation to the Falklands. The junta would no longer be able to claim to be fighting British imperialism ... A Labour government could not just abandon the Falklanders and let Galtieri get on with it. But it would continue the war on socialist lines" (Militant International Review No22, June 1982).

By contrast, many on the left took up a diametrically opposed position, arguing for support for Argentine sovereignty over the Falklands/Malvinas. It was claimed that, due to the historic character of the islanders as colonial settlers, they could have no national rights. But then that would beg the same question about European settlers in Australia, New Zealand and the USA: do they too have no national rights? Certainly, colonialism has resulted in massive injustices towards native populations (Israel springs immediately to mind). But the task of the working class lies not in reversing history, rather taking what history has given.

Yet the Falklands are one of those work colonies set up in the 19th century to exploit fish stocks, graze sheep and as a coaling station in the deep south Atlantic. The Falklanders did not expropriate a native population. Something that cannot be said of Argentina.

Combined with a disregard for the rights of the Falkland population actually inhabiting the territory in dispute, the classic 'my enemy's enemy' position was adopted by the left.

For example, in a later justification for supporting the Galtieri regime, Workers Power, in a polemic against another Trotskyist group, the International Bolshevik Tendency, stated: "We determine our position on wars between capitalist states on the basis of a characterisation of the precise nature of those states - are they imperialist oppressor nations or are they imperialised and oppressed nations? There is no doubt that Argentina, despite its level of development in comparison with other semi-colonial countries, is imperialised - ie, dominated by imperialism "¦

"On the other hand, there is no doubt that Britain is an imperialist nation and that it fought the war to reassert the dominance of imperialism over Latin America - one result of the war being a huge Anglo-USA military base on the doorstep of Argentina and Chile. In such a situation communists are obliged to support the semi-colonial country, irrespective of either the nature or the motives of the regime ruling that country ...

"Its sovereignty over its islands - stolen from it by Britain - was very much at stake. Its war to reclaim these islands - Galtieri's motives notwithstanding - was a just war" (my emphasis, 'Workers Power critique of the LTT/IBT fusion 1987', April 2 1987).

This turns everything on its head, arguing the case on behalf of a minor robber instead of a big robber. The working class is disappeared. While apologists for the British naval mobilisation stressed the need to save the Falklanders from a military junta (although the British had been perfectly happy to do business with it before the conflict, with scant regard for those Argentineans who suffered at its hands), that does not mean that communists should not take into account the class and political nature of any force that comes into conflict with a major power. It is perverse to advocate the subjection of a people to a brutal military junta, which is what Workers Power was in effect doing.

Another bankrupt position was shared by the International Marxist Group (now International Socialist Group and Socialist Action) and the Revolutionary Communist Party (now Spiked, the Institute of Ideas, etc). In the name of anti-imperialism these groups argued that the Argentine bourgeoisie would be weakened by victory. Special pleading indeed of the case for supporting the junior capitalist country in the conflict. As it happened, and as could have been predicted even by a simpleton, the Argentinean junta's defeat brought about a profound political crisis within its ranks that led to its downfall and furthered possibilities for the advance of the working class in Argentina. Victory would have meant the opposite.

As for the Socialist Workers Party, the late Duncan Hallas presented its position over the Malvinas war at the time. While comrade Hallas declined to take sides between Britain and Argentina, he concluded: "We are not pacifists, we detest the Galtieri dictatorship, we dismiss the notion that the Argentinean seizure of the Falklands is progressive on anti-colonialist grounds. Nevertheless, we believe that, in a war between Britain and Argentina, the defeat of British imperialism is the lesser evil. The main enemy is at home" ('Socialism and war' Socialist Review May 1982).

If the only choice on offer was a victory for one reactionary gang or the other, then we too would be forced to state a preference for the defeat of British imperialism, even at the hands of the Argentine junta. However, defeat for the junta was the pressing need of the Argentine workers' and democratic movement. By far the most desirable outcome, therefore, would have been the mass mobilisation of the working class movement, to scupper both the naval task force and the Argentine invasion.

Comrade Hallas correctly pointed out: "There is no longer a rational, if predatory, cause of dispute. The Falklands are of no great significance. Pure prestige and internal politics are the driving force on both sides." However, he completely dismissed any notion that the Falkland Islanders should enjoy any rights: "A far more plausible case could be made for national self-determination for the Western Isles or the Isle of Man. And these more plausible cases would also be absurd and reactionary ... We do not, for example, concede it to the Ulster protestants, although they are indisputably a historically formed, self-conscious group with quasi-national characteristics."

But why is it "absurd and reactionary" to concede to a "historically formed, self-conscious group with quasi-national characteristics" the right to determine its own future? Can socialism be achieved without the consent of the majority of a given territory? To advocate the right of the Falklanders, the British-Irish or any other national group to self-determination is not to advocate the creation of a whole range of tiny new states. But if life itself produced a Western Isles separatist movement, how would the SWP approach it? Support its crushing by the British (or Scottish?) state?

This economistic dismissal of the right to self-determination resulted in the SWP - despite its desire not to take sides (how, by the way, does it square this with its dissimilar attitude toward the regimes in Tehran and London today?) - in practice taking up the same position over the Falklands/Malvinas as the Trotskyist left - but with only a crude lesser evilism by way of cover.

An article published in 1983 in the precursor of the Weekly Worker was quite clear about the events of the previous year in the south Atlantic, presenting a summary that has worn well over the intervening years: "The bellicose arms programme, the billions of pounds being spent on new weapons, including the Trident system [so very pertinent 24 years later - JM], is fully in line with the logic of capitalism and Britain's imperialist struggle to maintain itself as a major imperialist power.

"It was this ... which caused Britain to react so strongly to Argentina's seizure of the Falkland Islands. It was not that they had any great economic value - the cost of recapturing and maintaining Britain's hold over them has certainly dwarfed the drawing board schemes for krill fishing. No, Britain responded with such vigour and determination because its reputation and standing as an imperialist power had been dented by Argentina's desperate attempt to become an imperialist power" (The Leninist August 1983).

Finally, it is worth noting that the official UK position has not changed markedly in the last quarter of a century: "The Falkland Islands are economically self-sufficient in all areas except defence - the cost of which amounts to some 0.5% of the total UK defence budget" (www.falklands.gov.fk/forum2007/press-release.php). This 0.5% translates into £160 million per annum, since "In the 2005-2006 financial year "¦ the UK government planned to spend £32,506 million "¦ on defence" (www.armedforces.co.uk/mod/listings/l0012.html).

In comparison, the official 2005 estimate of Falklands/Malvinas GDP was around £40 million - the equivalent of 25% of the annual military costs to British imperialism of keeping hold of the islands. Indeed, spending a sum so grossly disproportionate to the Falklands's/Malvinas's trivial economic importance on its defence suggests a certain continuing keenness on maintaining Britain's role as an imperial power.