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Forty Years since Thatcher’s War Against Argentina — Lessons for Today

On April 5, 1982, the British government of Margaret Thatcher sent an armada into the South Atlantic. The war against Argentina ended with a defeat for the world working class. The results highlight why, for Marxists, anti-imperialism remains central to liberation.

Nathaniel Flakin

April 5, 2022
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On April 5, 1982, the British government sent an armada of aircraft carriers and destroyers to the South Atlantic. The mission of this Task Force, as it was called, was to recapture two islands off the Southern Cone of South America. The Islas Malvinas, known in English as the Falkland Islands, had been conquered three days previously by the Argentinean armed forces.

The Malvinas War ended 10 weeks later with a British victory. Today, 40 years later, is an opportunity to reflect on the lessons of this war for socialists — especially since the war in Ukraine has provoked many new debates about anti-imperialism.1For debates over the war in Ukraine, see the latest issue of Left Voice Magazine. The Malvinas War (more commonly known in English as the Falklands War) might be largely unknown to a younger generation of socialists — but it was a pivotal event at the beginning of the neoliberal era. This article will give a brief overview.2For much longer reflections about the 40th anniversary in Spanish, see this piece by Matías Maiello as well as interviews with Andrea Rodríguez, Christian Castillo, “Titín” Moreira, and Federico Lorenz on our sister site La Izquierda Diario, which form the basis for this article.

The Dispute

Together, East Falklands, West Falklands, and hundreds of smaller islands form a British overseas territory. The archipelago is 1,500 kilometers off the southern coast of Argentina in the stormy South Atlantic, on the Patagonian shelf, and more than 12,000 kilometers from Britain. Today, the islands are home to just over 3,000 civilians, up to 2,000 soldiers at the Mount Pleasant Royal Air Force Station, and about half a million sheep.

Britain occupied the islands in 1833, expelling the Argentinean republic, which had just won its independence from Spain. From a Marxist perspective, it is not particularly relevant which rapacious empire first planted a flag on the islands. Nor is it decisive where the loyalties of the small number British settlers lay. The decisive problem is that this British colonial possession is central to imperialist domination of South America. Breaking the chains of imperialism also means throwing the Royal Navy off the islands. As part of the worldwide process of decolonization in the 1960s, UK governments had indicated their willingness to hand the Malvinas over to Argentina, yet dragged their feet for decades.

In the early 1980s, Argentina was ruled by a blood-soaked dictatorship. A military junta came to power in a coup in 1976, and they murdered and disappeared 30,000 workers and leftists in a dirty war. But starting in 1980, an economic crisis hit the country. The vanguard of the workers’ movement had been physically liquidated by repression, but the proletariat began to raise its head again. On March 30, 1982, a general strike shook Argentina, in which workers fought the police and chanted “the military dictatorship will fall.”

A new president of the junta, General Leopoldo Galtieri, decided to seize the islands in a gamble to win some popular support. The dictatorship had been an enthusiastic servant of U.S. imperialism, supporting its counterrevolutionary interventions in Central America. Yet now the armed forces wanted to pass themselves off as “anti-imperialist.” Their plan was based on the idea that the UK would not fight to hold its colony The junta believed that U.S. imperialism would be thankful for the junta’s services crushing the workers’ movement and the Left, and that Washington would thus restrain London.

As a result, the operation was poorly planned. The junta never even contemplated seizing British assets in the country — let alone those of other imperialist powers. They sent a minimal force to seize the islands and made little attempt to fortify their position. They never attempted to actually win the war — they assumed Her Majesty’s government would simply negotiate a handover.

The War and the Left

As soon as the conflict began, it became clear that the British navy could rely on support from U.S. imperialism. Washington and London were connected by a “special relationship,” and U.S. imperialism only appreciated its colonial servants if they followed orders — a lesson that Saddam Hussein would learn a few years later. The Argentinean military used encrypted communication purchased from U.S. companies — and the CIA passed on the secret communications to its British counterpart. The war lasted 10 weeks, its most dramatic incident being the sinking of the Argentinean cruiser General Belgrano by a British nuclear-powered sub. Three-hundred and eighty-eight Argentinean sailors died. On June 14, Argentina’s forces surrendered.

Just like the war in Ukraine today, the Malvinas War provoked many debates and disagreements on the Left, both in Argentina and internationally. What position should socialists take in the face of a war started by a brutal dictatorship with cynical motives?

For liberals in Argentina, the defeat was a blessing. As Beatriz Sarlo and others have argued, the military defeat brought about the end of the dictatorship and the return to democracy. Elections were held in late 1983.

For revolutionary socialists, however, the attempt to capture the islands from the British Empire was an example of a “just war” waged by a dependent country against an imperialist power.

The islands serve as a forward operating base to control the South Atlantic, Antarctica, and, most importantly, the Southern Cone itself. Any progressive change in South America will demand the expulsion of British and U.S. imperialism — and the Islas Malvinas, as long as they remain under British control, will prevent that.

Obviously, there was no question of leftists in Argentina giving political support to the junta, which had murdered so many comrades. But the dictatorship, for its own cynical reasons, was taking up a cause with broad support among the masses in Argentina. The Left placed itself in this military front while criticizing the generals for their failures to carry out the basic anti-imperialist measures that would have ensured victory. The officers, who systematically tortured the population, were even torturing their own soldiers during the war! The junta was also forced to allow demonstrations in support of the war effort, creating a new opportunity, after the general strike a few weeks earlier, for the Left to take to the streets after years of vicious repression.

Anti-imperialism

For some, it might be hard to understand why socialists would be on the side of a military dictatorship that crushed the workers’ movement, and not on the side of a parliamentary democracy that granted workers’ certain rights. Leon Trotsky explained this in an interview with Mateo Fossa in 1938:

In Brazil there now reigns a semifascist regime that every revolutionary can only view with hatred. Let us assume, however, that on the morrow England enters into a military conflict with Brazil. I ask you on whose side of the conflict will the working class be? I will answer for myself personally — in this case I will be on the side of “fascist” Brazil against “democratic” Great Britain. Why? Because in the conflict between them it will not be a question of democracy or fascism. If England should be victorious, she will put another fascist in Rio de Janeiro and will place double chains on Brazil. If Brazil on the contrary should be victorious, it will give a mighty impulse to national and democratic consciousness of the country and will lead to the overthrow of the Vargas dictatorship. The defeat of England will at the same time deliver a blow to British imperialism and will give an impulse to the revolutionary movement of the British proletariat. Truly, one must have an empty head to reduce world antagonisms and military conflicts to the struggle between fascism and democracy. Under all masks one must know how to distinguish exploiters, slave-owners, and robbers!

Unfortunately, a number of socialists in Britain failed to understand that “anti-imperialist struggle is key to liberation,” as Trotsky put it. Instead, they believed the war against Argentina would end up helping the Argentinean working class topple the dictatorship.

The Militant Tendency in the Labour Party, which was the largest organization to claim the heritage of Trotskyism in Britain in the 1980s, adapted to the pressures of social chauvinism in the reformist party in which it had for decades been practicing deep entryism. It did not organize rallies or demonstrations to stop Thatcher’s war. Instead it called for… new elections! Militant insisted that a Labour government would give the war a totally different character — even though Labour had carried out many imperialist wars throughout the 20th century. As Militant wrote at the time:

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.

What, exactly, would an imperialist war carried out “on socialist lines” look like? This has never been explained. Militant’s main leader, Ted Grant, suggested that calls for a general strike to stop the imperialist war machine were “ludicrous” — and that any serious opposition to the war would “put Marxists beyond the pale in the eyes of workers.”

Marxist opposition to imperialist war has often faced stiff opposition. Just think of Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, and their comrades, who were mercilessly hounded when they stood up against World War I. Should they have similarly refused to put themselves “beyond the pale in the eyes of [some] workers” when they declared that the main enemy was at home?3For a longer polemic with Militant’s position, see this article in Spanish on our sister site La Izquierda Diario México.

Today, several tendencies have descended from Militant, including the CWI, the ISA, and the IMT. Yet all of them seem to defend this social chauvinist legacy. 4The CWI reprinted the worst article in 2007, and the IMT’s Alan Woods defended Militant’s record in a debate with an Argentinean Trotskyist in 2005. Yesterday, the IMT republished Grant’s article.

Grant’s most ridiculous argument is that Argentina was an imperialist country and that the war was therefore an interimperialist dispute. It is hard to imagine that Grant or any of his students believe this — they are presumably just hoping no one will notice a cheap trick to cover for their imperialism. Surely they have noticed that while Britain has military bases off Argentina’s coast, there are no Argentinean bases in the Channel Islands? And more importantly, Argentina’s economy has for more than a century been dominated by British and then U.S. capital. The nationalization of British-owned railways was a progressive measure by the government of Juan Perón in 1948. The nationalization of imperialist capital remains an important task of the socialist revolution in Latin America. Grant would have difficulty finding any Argentinean dominance of Britain’s economy.

While this argument was ridiculous in 1982, it is more so today, after decades in which the Argentinean economy has been ravaged by IMF tutelage and just recently tried to renegotiate a series of payments until 2032. If we seriously consider Argentina imperialist, we would need to say the same of Mexico, Brazil, and most of Latin America. In fact, it would be hard to find many countries that weren’t imperialist.

Some socialists, for example, argued that the British settlers, known as kelpers, deserved “self-determination,” as if they were an oppressed nation and not an imperialist settlement. Grant, while not using that term, said, “Although there are only 1,800 Falkland Islanders, Marxists nevertheless have to take into consideration their rights and interests.” This consideration for the national rights of settler colonialists leads students of Grant to utterly reactionary conclusions when they look at, say, Palestine, where they call for a “socialist Israel.”

The Results

Liberals and social chauvinists agree that Argentina’s defeat was a victory for democracy. Alan Woods, writing two decades later, went so far as to say that “the defeat of the invasion was the start of the Argentinean revolution.” But what kind of “revolution” led to what kind of “democracy”? There was enormous rage at the generals, whose corruption and incompetence had led to a humiliating defeat and cost the lives of hundreds of soldiers. Yet this rage, as the previous general strike had shown, was already growing.

Thatcher’s victory gave her political capital for her next offensive. Within two years, she moved to crush the British miners and thus secured a decisive victory against the workers’ movement. From a UK perspective, it is obvious the Malvinas War marked a terrible defeat for the working class.5 Woods argues, correctly, that the “the results of the Malvinas victory were very negative for the British working class.” But he refuses to draw the obvious conclusion, as Trotsky had advocated: that British workers should have fought for the defeat of their own government. Woods then adds that the military defeat was positive for the working class in Argentina. So he thinks that British and Argentinean workers have counterposed interests? If the war had “negative results” for workers in the UK, shouldn’t the Argentinean proletariat have fought to prevent these “negative results” for its class siblings by fighting for a British defeat? The Trotskyist, i.e., anti-imperialist position, is self-apparent at every turn, yet Woods ties himself in knots trying to defend Militant’s indefensible record.

And from an Argentinean perspective? Here, it is worth looking at the “democracy” that followed the junta’s fall. Trotsky’s prediction was absolutely correct: imperialism placed Argentina in “double chains.” Subsequent governments were, if anything, even more subservient to imperialism. The masses were burdened with a completely unpayable foreign debt and had to endure massive privatizations and social cuts. The country remains, to this day, under the control of the IMF — funding is cut for education and health care to pay interest to foreign banks.

And the islands themselves? As this fascinating article from the New Yorker explains, they still have lots of sheep, but the Falklands now have a new prosperity based on selling fishing rights and hosting cruise ships. Such parasitic economic activities serve as a convenient excuse to keep thousands of soldiers on these rocky islands — as insurance against any and all future attempts by the workers and peasants of Latin America to break free of imperialist domination.

Seen from both sides of the Atlantic, Thatcher’s victory in the Malvinas War was a defeat for the international working class. More than that: it marked the beginning of the capitalist offensive that we now know as “neoliberalism.” The war was part of a series of attacks that shifted the balance of forces from the working class to the bourgeoisie. As we look back on this episode, it is obvious that a victory against British imperialism, even at the hands of the utterly reactionary junta, would have been a boon for the global proletariat. That blow against imperialism would have been an inspiration to workers in Argentina and the rest of the semicolonial world — it is no coincidence that Chile’s dictator Pinochet supported Britain, while Cuba and the Soviet Union, along with much of the dependent countries, took Argentina’s side. In the case of imperialism’s defeat, the junta would have fallen. The dictatorship would have been replaced not by a corrupt and dependent bourgeois democracy, but by a workers’ government.

Today, again, imperialist militarism is being sold with empty phrases about “democracy,” “self-determination,” and “fighting dictatorship.” Now, just as they did four decades ago, socialists need to understand that anti-imperialism is central to liberation. To guarantee peace, NATO needs to be thrown out of not only Eastern Europe but also out the South Atlantic.

Notes[+]

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Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from Berlin. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which has appeared in German, in English, and in French. He is on the autism spectrum.

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