In the spring of 1982, war erupted between the United Kingdom and Argentina over control of the Falkland Islands. At the time, the UK was in the third year of the Thatcher government and mired in recession. Argentina was under the thumb of a military dictator, General Galtieri, later implicated in the killing of between 9,000 and 30,000 left-wing activists (according to different estimates) during the so-called ‘dirty war’.
It’s hard to imagine now but the war was like a bizarre bolt out of the blue – or out of Buenos Aires to be precise. Suddenly on the TV news bulletins we had the sight of Argentinian warships heading towards a remnant from the British Empire down in the south Atlantic. The Falkland Islands were not really on anybody’s radar – not even Thatcher’s apparently, as she admitted at the time.
Falklands War rescues Thatcher
Up until this war, Thatcher’s popularity in large parts of the UK had been tanking thanks to a prolonged economic recession and a steep rise in unemployment. Meanwhile in Argentina, a military dictatorship had been in place since the mid-1970s. The junta was under pressure as inflation galloped well into three figures and the streets filled with protestors. You didn’t have to be a genius to realise this war could benefit either side – dependent on the outcome of course.
For the Left, the Falklands War was a headache
So, what was the position of the Marxist left in the UK?
Today I think the most likely stance would have been hostility to Thatcher’s bellicosity and a strong desire to relinquish the Falklands as a colonial era hangover. While of course arguing – tortuously to be sure – an internationalist class-based stance. In 1982, it might surprise anti-imperialists to know that there was a rather different slant.
As the overwhelming majority of Falkland Islanders were British – and hardly any of Argentinian heritage – the view among many Marxists in 1982 was that they were entitled to self-determination. In fact, the Falklands Islands government up to the current time insists it is not a ‘colony’ but a self-governing part of the UK. Similar to the position of Gibraltar in relation to Spain.
Furthermore, it was felt that Marxists should not lend any credibility to the pseudo-anti-imperialist rhetoric of a de facto fascist like Galtieri. This was a foreign policy adventure by a despot in trouble with hyper-inflation and the very real prospect of being toppled.
So did that mean automatic support for Thatcher’s war? No – of course not. But it did mean some ideological contortions to present a ‘class position’. And I’ve seen it argued that it was the first time that fractures in the Militant leadership were revealed. But I leave that to those closer to the action to comment on.
I recall attempts to draw an analogy with the First World War and the debate among German socialists in 1914 on whether to support the Kaiser’s military budget in the Reichstag. The German SPD – the main reformist party of the left – ended up supporting the Kaiser. Marxists like Rosa Luxemburg viewed WWI as an imperialist affair with working class youth as cannon fodder. And in between Luxemburg and the SPD leadership were Marxist-influenced figures like Karl Kautsky (subsequently dubbed a “renegade” by Lenin) who wobbled, abstained or caved in to the pro-war mania gripping many workers.
In 1982, facing a war of significantly lower magnitude, the left split in similar ways. The Labour Party supported military action though arguing that the Task Force being sent down to the Falklands should ideally not be deployed. That position was mocked and torn apart by journalists, let alone the Tories. Labour leader Michael Foot had a long record of pacifism and his discomfort at having to support the war was obvious to everybody.
The left of the Labour Party condemned the war along pacifist lines that had little appeal to working class voters whipped up into a patriotic frenzy by the tabloid press. The Sun in particular took jingoism to levels not seen since the First World War or the Relief of Mafeking.
Being half-Portuguese resulted in me being referred to as an “Argie” in the student union bar at the time. For the record, Portugal allowed the British to use the Azores for refuelling during the Falklands War. This was lost on students I’d previously regarded as fairly sane, liberal and friendly who suddenly transformed into rabid racists.
The Marxist response to the Falklands War
Militant’s founder Ted Grant wrote a pamphlet, pictured at the top of this article. Falklands Crisis A Socialist Answer. In his conclusion, Grant states with characteristic revolutionary optimism that “a correct approach towards the war and the feelings of the workers in Britain” would lead to big gains for Marxists.
Unfortunately, this shows the limits of counter-narratives. The idea that by stating the correct position, your target audience will obligingly fall into line. The subsequent 1983 general election saw a shift of support towards the Tories despite everything they had done to the economy since 1979. And I was taken aback, canvassing in that election, by the support for the war on council estates in Liverpool.
Hindsight is an exact science of course but Grant’s application of a Marxist analysis to the war fell short in some regards. Reading his pamphlet now, part of the problem is a mistake made by many military strategists – referring back to a previous conflict to guide you in a current one. And Grant’s references to World War Two to understand what might happen next in relation to Argentina seems badly misplaced.
He seemed to seriously envisage the possibility of British capitalism pursuing the war into Argentina. I recall this led to discussions in meetings about conscription being re-introduced and whether Marxists should join up in order to be shoulder-to-shoulder with workers in uniform.
In reality, conscription was never really on the cards and the military operation that unfolded illustrated all the weaknesses of the Argentine conscript army (with superior numbers) against hardened, trained, professional British soldiers.
But Grant saw a role for a socialist UK as an agent of revolution in the region. He even conjectured that a Britain under Marxism would conceivably march on Buenos Aires:
“If necessary, British workers and the Marxists will be willing to wage a war against the Argentine Junta, to help the Argentine workers to take power into their own hands.”
I’m trying to picture the late Maradona welcoming this invading socialist British army with open arms and it’s just not happening…
Even if the UK had been a Marxist state, I find it doubtful that Argentinian workers would have taken up the slogan of “a socialist federation of Argentina, the Falklands and of a socialist Britain”.
Two key predictions made by Grant in this pamphlet were fundamentally wrong. On the UK, Grant breezily stated that “whatever the outcome of the war”, Thatcher would be ousted in “the next six or nine months” and replaced by Francis Pym. It is true that her position had been incredibly unstable and a coup might still have been possible but not to countenance her experiencing a bounce from a victory in the Falklands looks very misplaced now.
And in Argentina, Grant thought that defeat at the hands of British imperialism would fell the junta – which was exactly what happened. But he thought that while the Peronist party would retake power, democracy would be short-lived and replaced by an even worse military dictatorship. With Chile in mind, that was an understandable analysis. But it was also wrong.
An improved Marxist analysis of the Falklands War
An analysis at around the same time by Lynn Walsh, a Militant central committee member, had one key nuanced difference. Whereas Grant talked in terms of a socialist federation between the UK, Falklands and Argentina – Walsh argued that while the Falkland Islanders had every reason to resist being under the heel of the Galtieri dictatorship, they might be more open to being part of a socialist federation of Latin America.
That would undoubtedly chime better today. The idea of the UK – even a socialist UK – determining political events in the southern hemisphere would stick in the craw now.
Grant also implicitly assumed that British capitalism still had enormous sway in Latin America. That had undoubtedly once been the case. At times in the 19th century, about 10% of total UK overseas investment was going into Argentina. And in 1939, Britain still accounted for 39% of foreign investment in Argentina. But that was already changing by the 1980s and today, the UK doesn’t even make the top ten foreign investors in Argentina.
The ultra-leftists who supported Galtieri
It would be remiss of not to mention that some on the ultra-left, invoking some of Trotsky’s writings in the 1930s, argued for a position of what might be termed revolutionary defeatism. They lauded the idea of Galtieri’s forces sinking the British Task Force. And believed this would lead to the downfall of Thatcher. Can’t imagine whether those groups ever argued their position to the mother of a boy fighting in the Falklands – but would like to have been a fly on the wall to witness it.
This kind of bizarre side taking in late 20th century wars by people calling themselves Marxists has extended to several conflicts from the Balkans to the Iran-Iraq war. The line of thinking goes something like this:
- Protagonist A is hated the most by the United States
- Therefore we will support Protagonist A
- Our enemy’s enemy is our friend
Needless to say, that has led to some strange bedfellows.
Falklands War anticipated in advance?
And finally, it’s worth noting that prior to the Falklands War, even the Tories had toyed with get-out strategies. It’s now known that in 1980, the Thatcher government met Argentine officials with a view to handing over the islands on a leaseback basis. The islanders would be given fifty years to pack up their belongings, sort out their affairs and leave. The Falklands War scuppered those plans.