By Bernie McAdam
Forty years ago, Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government fought an undeclared war against Argentina for control of the Malvinas.
On 2 April 1982, Argentina’s military dictator General Galtieri ordered the invasion of the Malvinas or, as Britain calls them, the Falkland Islands and South Georgia/Sandwich Islands.
Both sets of islands were British dependent territories in the South Atlantic Ocean and a 10 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 legacy of its vast Empire based on imperial plunder and theft. After Argentina won independence its sovereignty of the islands was recognised in 1820. However, Britain seized the islands in 1833. British settlers and their descendants made up the 1,800 residents at the time of the war.
So General Galtieri was reclaiming what had been stolen, but his invasion was not motivated by anti-imperialist principle – it was to distract from his unpopularity at home.
Britain’s imperial pride had been massively dented, and Britain didn’t want to appear weak. Thatcher was able to reverse her extreme unpopularity through the victory, becoming known as the ‘Iron Lady’ following the conflict. Having defeated the ‘enemy without’ she was able to turn on ‘the enemy within’: the miners.
Argentina: a semi-colony
Thatcher was able to whip up war hysteria thanks in large measure to 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. He taunted Thatcher for having lost one of the Queen’s possessions, as well as for cutting the naval budget. He also justified the counter-invasion as a legitimate defence of the self-determination of the Falkland Islanders.
However, Britain is an imperialist country, while Argentina is 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 in any armed confrontation.
In 1916, Lenin described Argentina as ‘almost a British commercial colony’. Despite relatively high wages and a European standard of living for sections of the working class, British ownership of the country’s railways, ports, industries and banks meant that Argentina was economically and politically dominated by British imperialism.
By the early 1980s American capital had major influence over Argentina’s economy, but after attempts to mediate a diplomatic solution, Reagan backed Thatcher with weaponry and telecoms. The US also backed the United Nations Security Council resolution 502 on 3 April, which called on Argentina to withdraw, winning 10 votes to 1, with the USSR and China abstaining.
Quickly gathering her Task force and commandeering civilian ships to bolster Britain’s diminishing navy, Thatcher 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 warships, with 368 perishing in the icy waters of the South Atlantic.
As the ship was outside the UK-imposed exclusion zone, nowhere near the Task force and in fact sailing back towards Argentina, this act drew widespread criticism, particularly from Latin America.
The British fleet did take significant casualties from the Argentine air force; HMS Sheffield was first to be sunk, followed by Coventry, Ardent and Antelope. Some Argentine bombs failed to explode despite direct hits on several ships.
Eventually the British army landed on the islands and some short but intensive battles took place. Argentina surrendered on 14 June.
Response of the left
Labour leader Michael Foot argued that Galtieri was no better than a fascist and the Falkland Islanders had a right to self-determination. Workers Power countered that self-determination is the right to form an independent state; the Falkland Islanders wanted to remain part of the British empire, something socialists cannot support. Britain had stolen the islands from Argentina.
Tony Benn, on the left of Labour, opposed the fleet and war preparations, demanding a vote in the Commons. As the fleet sailed south, Benn’s demands were modified: first to ‘halt the task force’ rather than demanding its withdrawal; then once Britain had attacked, to ‘for an immediate ceasefire’, once again failing to demand Britain’s complete withdrawal. Benn also argued for economic sanctions, which harm the poor and oppressed masses.
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. The International Marxist Group at least called for the return of the Malvinas to Argentina, but not for solidarity or for the mobilisation of the British working class against the attack.
In reality there was no democratic justification for Britain to go to war over the island. The islands were Argentina’s, and socialists support oppressed nations against imperialist ones, whatever the policy of their governments. Alongside a mobilisation to defeat imperialism in the Malvinas, Argentine workers should have gone further, deepening the struggle against their oppressors by expropriating imperialist factories and property, refusing to pay the international debt repayments, and securing Galtieri’s overthrow.
Thatcher’s victory was a huge defeat for workers in Britain, increasing chauvinism within the working class, defeating Labour at the polls subsequently, and strengthening Thatcher’s reputation. 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, but the British left failed to adopt a correct revolutionary internationalist position once again.