National Sections of the L5I:

Malvinas War anniversary

Printer-friendly versionPDF version

Forty years ago, Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government fought an undeclared war against Argentina for control of the Malvinas or, as Britain calls them, the Falkland Islands. On 2 April 1982, Argentina’s military dictator General Galtieri ordered the invasion of both the Malvinas and South Georgia/Sandwich Islands. Both sets of islands were British dependent territories in the South Atlantic Ocean and a ten week war eventually ended in the surrender of Argentine forces and the repossession of the territories, after 649 Argentine and 255 British military personnel had been killed.

The fact that Britain owned islands over 8,000 miles away was a typical legacy of its vast Empire which of course was based on imperial plunder and theft. Spain had previously occupied the islands but was compelled to withdraw after the Argentine war of independence which ended in 1818 with Argentine sovereignty recognised in 1820. However, the islands had been seized from Argentina by the British in 1833 and became a Crown colony in 1841 and was planted with British settlers, their descendants and later settlers made up the 1,800 residents at the time of the war.

So General Galtieri was claiming what had been stolen from Argentina and which the latter had repeatedly claimed since 1833. His invasion of the islands was not motivated by any anti-imperialist principle, though most Argentinians felt was a just cause. Rather, it was to distract from his unpopularity at home, due mainly to the economic hardship and crimes inflicted by his junta. His move to exert sovereignty over an area believed to be rich in mineral wealth and oil was an equally important consideration.

Britain’s response was no less informed by the knowledge of the region’s unexploited resources and also the history of the Malvinas as an important outpost of Empire. Clearly, imperial pride had been massively dented and Britain was eager not to appear as the weak link amongst the big imperialist powers which might just embolden oppressed peoples around the world. The military expedition and victory also had the consequence of completely turning Thatcher’s then extreme unpopularity around as the ‘Iron Lady’. Having defeated the ‘enemy without’ she was able to tun on ‘the enemy within’: the miners, the dockers, the print workers and the left Labour councils.

ARGENTINA: A SEMI COLONY

Thatcher was able to whip up war hysteria thanks in large measure to the reaction of Labour’s ‘left’ leader, Michael Foot. For all his record of self-described ‘peace-mongering’, the war with Argentina showed him to be an outright social imperialist once Britain’s interests were threatened. In the House of Commons, he infamously taunted Thatcher for having lost one of the Queen’s possessions to an Argentine dictator, as well as for recent cuts in the navy budget. He also justified the war as a legitimate support for the self-determination of the Falkland Islanders. As a result, opposition to the war was very limited. Even amongst those who did oppose the war on the British left, many simply equated Britain with Argentina as two capitalist states competing over resources.

However, Britain is an imperialist country, while Argentina is and was a semi-colony. It existed then, as today, in a world economy dominated by a small number of very powerful states. Marxists side with the victims of imperialist exploitation when any armed confrontation breaks out between the imperialists and oppressed peoples. Workers Power was nearly alone on the left in this country, though not internationally, in opposing the war out of solidarity with Argentina’s historic right to the islands and in defence of Argentina against Britain. For us, as for many on the Argentinian left, this implied no political support to Galtieri whatsoever. We clearly explained the nature and history of Argentina as a semi-colony subordinated to imperialism.

Argentina had passed from colonial servitude under Spain to being nominally independent but increasingly subordinated to economically more powerful nations. Foreign capital came to dominate the economy and in the 1870s British capital became the key player, especially in the lucrative meat packing industry. Lenin, in his 1916 pamphlet Imperialism, described Argentina’s semi-colonial status making it ‘almost a British commercial colony’. Nevertheless, because of the role the country played in providing food for the markets of Britain and its colonies until after the Second World War, prosperity allowed for high wages and a European standard of living for sections of the working class. Nevertheless, the country’s railways, ports, industries and banks and the loans they gave to the ranching bourgeoisie meant that Argentina was economically, and in the final analysis therefore, politically, dominated by British and latterly US imperialism.

The only real change in this relationship between imperialism and Argentina before the Second World War was the increasing eclipse of British capital by US investment which has expanded even more since then. After the Second World War, Argentina developed a significant state capitalist sector, but this too was dependent on loans from foreign finance capital with the ensuing debts and the increasing role of the IMF in the economy right now. Thus, it remains a semi colony, not an equal capitalist or rival imperialist power.

So, by the early 1980s it was mainly a US semi colony but any hope that the latter would back it in a conflict with Britain was a forlorn one. After fitful attempts to mediate a diplomatic solution, Ronald Reagan backed the UK to the hilt, providing missiles for the Harrier jets, harpoon anti-ship missiles, mortars, etc and use of US telecommunications systems and much more.

More support came when the United Nations Security Council resolution 502 was backed by the US on April 3. The resolution called on Argentina to withdraw, winning 10 votes to 1, with only Panama against, and Spain, the Soviet Union, China and Poland abstaining. Despite the call for negotiations, the UN resolution was a victory for Thatcher because it focussed only on the Argentine military and left open the question of Britain taking action under the UN Charter in self-defence.

THE WAR

Thatcher quickly gathered her Task force, commandeering various civilian ships to bolster its diminishing navy, and the RAF set up a base on the mid-Atlantic island of Ascension. South Georgia was recaptured first. One of the early engagements was the sinking of the General Belgrano, one of Argentina’s biggest, though oldest, warships, with 368 perishing in the icy waters of the South Atlantic. As the ship was outside the UK-imposed exclusion zone, was nowhere near the Task force and in fact sailing back towards Argentina, this act drew widespread criticism, in particular from Latin American countries and the anti-war movement in the UK.

The British fleet did take significant casualties from the Argentine air force; HMS Sheffield was first to be sunk, followed by HMS Coventry, Ardent, Antelope and the Exocet missile that hit the Atlantic Conveyor transport destroying a large quantity of materiel. The course of the war might have been quite different if Argentine bombs had not failed to explode despite direct hits on several other ships. But there were significant losses for the Argentines by air. Eventually the British army landed on the islands and some short but intensive battles took place. Argentine forces surrendered on 14 June.

RESPONSE OF THE LEFT

Labour’s leader Michael Foot won his soft left credentials as ‘the inveterate peacemonger’, marching many times with CND, but, once an actual war broke out, his pacifism drifted out the window and he backed Thatcher’s war. The argument being that Galtieri was no better than a fascist and the Falkland Islanders had a right to self-determination. Workers Power argued that self-determination is the right to form a separate independent state, a demand the Falkland Islanders were not making, they wanted to remain part of the British empire, something socialists should not support. Argentina had the islands stolen off them.

Tony Benn on the left of the party opposed the fleet and war preparations but he did not press his opposition to a vote in the Commons. As the fleet moved south, the left’s demands were modified first to halt the task force rather than withdraw, then as the action cracked off ‘for an immediate ceasefire’, presumably leaving the fleet in position! Benn also proposed economic sanctions against Argentina for basically the same war aims as Thatcher. Like others in the Labour leadership, Benn called on the imperialist-run United Nations to intervene.

All the major left groups failed to argue a position of solidarity with a semi-colony attacked by an imperialist power, including Socialist Worker and Militant. Militant was particularly odious, rejecting the demand for the fleet to withdraw or even build an anti-war movement. Soldiers were after all workers in uniform! The International Marxist Group were better, they at least argued for the return of the Malvinas to Argentina, but no explicit solidarity in defence of Argentina. Like most of the left, they adapted to CND’s attempts to build a mass anti-war movement on the lowest common denominator which CND saw as implementing UN Resolution 502 which was the basis for Thatcher going to war!

In reality there was no democratic justification for the war. The islands were Argentina’s and socialists support oppressed nations against imperialist ones, whatever their governments. Alongside a mobilisation to defeat imperialism in the Malvinas, Argentine workers had to deepen the struggle against their oppressors by expropriating imperialist factories and property, refusing to pay the international debts and securing Galtieri’s overthrow as part of that struggle to defeat imperialism.

To conclude, Thatcher’s victory was a huge defeat for workers here, increasing chauvinism within the working class, defeating Labour at the polls subsequently and strengthening her reputation as the Iron Lady. On the international stage, it was also a boost for imperialist reaction and a blow against anti-imperialist struggles. A defeat for Britain would have been a blow for the oppressed against imperialism, that’s why we called for it. The British left failed the test of internationalism again.

Navigation