A trial by fire for the nascent IWL-FI!
On 2 April 1982, Argentine troops landed on the Malvinas Islands (occupied and usurped by Britain since 1833), defeated the British garrison and recovered the territory. The action had been ordered by the Argentine military dictatorship, led by General Leopoldo F. Galtieri. In order to regain control of the islands, UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher responded by sending the largest British naval force since World War II. The Falklands War began. In January of that year, the IWL-FI (International Workers League – Fourth International) had been founded as an expression of the regrouping of “orthodox Trotskyism” which, shortly afterwards, had to respond to this difficult political test.
By Alejandro Iturbe
The goal of this article, apart from the historical memory, is to draw various conclusions from what happened because they are highly topical. Wars and attacks by imperialist or oppressor countries against semi-colonial or oppressed countries have continued: just look at the current war in Ukraine. The debate on whether imperialism can be confronted and defeated is also very topical. For this reason, we are going to refer both to the events that took place and to the lessons they teach us.
The operation carried out by the Argentine military regime to recover the Malvinas Islands produced one of those complex crossroads that often occur in history. The military dictatorship installed in 1976 was experiencing a deepening crisis: its economic plan had exploded two years earlier, it was losing support from the middle sectors, and a growing workers’ and popular resistance was developing. In this context, the military regime was divided: one sector proposed to move towards a gradual and controlled “political opening”, while another, led by Galtieri (who was getting rich by parasitizing state enterprises), intended to remain in power for many more years.
For this sector, the military action in the Malvinas was a political manoeuvre to “push forward” the deep crisis of the regime and gain prestige and popular support by carrying out a claim that was deeply felt by the Argentine people. But for a genocidal dictatorship, it ended up being an adventurist action. Galtieri believed that the action would have a “low cost” because, being a territory of little economic and geopolitical value, Britain would not respond to the attack. In any case, the US government (headed by Ronald Reagan) would “let the invasion go ahead” in “gratitude” for the Argentine military’s collaboration provided in the repression and counter-revolution in various Latin American countries.
This was a serious political miscalculation. Margaret Thatcher, whose government had been born weak, took advantage of the event to try to strengthen herself and sent a powerful naval force; Ronald Reagan clearly backed her, providing logistical and technical support and resupply bases. They wanted to send a clear message to the world: imperialism and its possessions are not to be trifled with.
The Catholic Church lined up behind them: when Prince Andrew enlisted as a helicopter pilot to fight against Argentina, Pope John Paul II declared “God bless your son” during a visit to the queen. (1)
In the face of war, he launched a hypocritical ‘call for peace’ whose real content was to push for Argentina’s surrender. He even made a lightning trip to Argentina to participate in a large Mass/meeting a few days before the surrender. (2)
At the same time, the call to support the recovery of the Malvinas was transformed into an overwhelming anti-imperialist popular mobilization that broke the dictatorial control of the country: the military had opened the “Pandora’s box” that would lead to the end of the dictatorship. Caught between an anti-imperialist war they did not want, on the one hand, and mass mobilization, on the other, the great majority of the Argentine bourgeoisie (like the future president-elect Raúl Alfonsín) and the military high command began to work for Argentina’s defeat. In this framework, divided between those who wanted to lose the war quickly and those who wanted to win it, the Argentine military regime, in fact, broke down.
What stance should revolutionaries take before this war?
The Malvinas war generated, and still generates, intense polemics within the Argentine and world left. What attitude should be adopted before the action of a military regime that had kidnapped, tortured and murdered thousands of people? What was more important: the anti-imperialist struggle or the repudiation of the regime? Was it necessary to stand up for Argentina’s triumph, for Britain’s, or to adopt a neutral position?
In answer to these questions, the recently founded IWL-FI and its Argentine section at the time, the PST (Socialist Workers Party), had no doubts and oriented themselves according to Leon Trotsky’s teachings. In a 1938 interview with the Argentine workers’ leader Mateo Fossa, he clearly affirmed that, in the hypothesis of war between a semi-fascist semi-colonial regime and a “democratic” imperialist power, the revolutionaries should be part, without hesitation, of the “military camp” of the semi-colonial country. (3)
A criterion that matched Lenin’s when, during the First World War, he analyzed the existence of “necessary and just” wars. Among them, “…wars ‘for the defence of the fatherland,’ or ‘defensive’ wars, as legitimate, progressive and just. For example, if tomorrow, Morocco were to declare war on France, India on England, Persia or China on Russia, and so forth, those would be ‘just,’ ‘defensive’ wars, irrespective of who attacked first; and every Socialist would sympathize with the victory of the oppressed, dependent, unequal states against the oppressing, slave-owning, predatory ‘great’ powers.” That is to say, for Lenin, the policy regarding war and its outcome did not depend on who the leaders in the oppressed countries were but on the nature of the countries in conflict. In this case, the socialists should “defend the fatherland” and place themselves in its military camp. That was, for him, the central parameter and a guiding thread for the socialist revolution: “Socialists cannot achieve their great aim without fighting against all oppression of nations.” (4)
The IWL-FI was consistent with these very clear criteria and, a few days after the recovery of the Malvinas, published a statement whose headline speaks for itself: “In the front line of combat against British imperialism” and initiated an international campaign in support of Argentina in the war. (5) The attitude of the Argentine PST (predecessor of the current PSTU-A) was heroic: from the harsh clandestinity to which it was subjected by the military dictatorship, in spite of having fought it heroically in those years and having suffered 100 deaths due to repression, it claimed its place in the anti-imperialist military camp and, with the great majority of the Argentine people, did its best for the triumph. For example, two well-known workers leaders and members of the PST who were imprisoned by the dictatorship (“Petiso” Paez and “Pelado” Matosas) asked to be freed to go to fight in the Malvinas. In the same way, after the Argentine defeat, the PST was in the streets of the country advancing the mobilizations that gave the coup de grace to the dictatorship.
Some of the most important events of the IWL-FI campaign, in the framework of the great support given by many Latin American peoples to Argentina, took place in Peru. Thousands of port workers had begun a boycott of British ships on April 27. The union leader Luis Negreros said that “they were doing just like the dockers in Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela.” On May 12, in Lima, an impressive four-kilometres-long demonstration marched to the Plaza San Martín, called by the Peruvian-Argentine Solidarity Committee which included, among others, Eduardo Expósito (PST and IWL-FI leader, exiled in Peru). (6)
The polemics within the left
While the IWL-FI and the Argentine PST defended and pushed for a very clear revolutionary policy, a large part of the Argentine and world left (even currents which claimed to be Leninist and Trotskyist) chose the wrong paths: they oscillated between shameful support for Great Britain and a pacifist policy of “neutrality” that, in practice, served imperialism. The debates that took place in Argentina will be dealt with in specific articles. In this one, we will focus on international polemics, especially with the Trotskyist organizations based in Europe.
For example, on April 12, the USec (Unified Secretariat of the Fourth International) issued a statement of the Trotskyist International Liaison Committee whose point 5 reads: “In doing so the Argentine dictators have trampled upon the rights of the Falkland inhabitants, who in themselves oppress and threaten no one and should have the right to decide their own future. (…) We do not support this action and call for the withdrawal of Argentine troops.” (7)
In other words, it claimed the right to self-determination of the inhabitants of the Malvinas against Argentina. This stand was based on a falsification: the Malvinas inhabitants (the Kelpers) are not a nationality of a colonial possession dominated by imperialism who are fighting for their independence. Malvinas is an imperialist enclave: that is to say, a territory of another nation appropriated by a foreign power, on which it artificially settles a population brought from the usurping power. Because of this situation, this population will always struggle to remain part of it. It is the same situation that occurs in Gibraltar, usurped by England from Spain.
Strikingly, USec’s position coincided to the millimetre with that of Margaret Thatcher for sending the British naval fleet: “…the people of the Falkland Islands shall be free to determine their own way of life and their own future… But they cannot be freely expressed, … while the present illegal Argentine occupation continues. That is why our immediate goal in recent days has been to secure the withdrawal of all Argentine forces… That solution must safeguard the principle that the wishes of the islanders shall remain paramount.” (8) Although it never stated it directly, the logical conclusion of the Usec’s analysis and policy is that Margaret Thatcher’s policy had to be supported and unity of military action with Great Britain had to be achieved.
For its part, the Trotskyist current headed by Pierre Lambert, whose main party was the French PCI (Internationalist Communist Party) adopted a “neutralist” position (i.e. “we have no side”) and accused the IWL-FI and the PST of “supporting the dictatorship”. (9)
In spite of this deep political degradation of international Trotskyist organizations, especially those whose main sections are in Europe, there were some exceptions in that continent. The IWL-FI Spanish section at the time (the PST) had clearly claimed to be in the Argentine military camp. Another important case was that of a faction that split from the British WRP (Workers Revolutionary Party) after a harsh internal debate for an internationalist perspective, that included that same position on the Malvinas. Thus began a political relationship from 1986 that led that faction, headed by labour leader and Trotskyist Bill Hunter, to join the IWL-FI in 1988, giving rise to the current ISL (International Socialist League). (10)
Imperialism can be defeated
During the war, a large part of the Argentine bourgeoisie and its media outlets launched a strong defeatist campaign saying it was “an absurd war” because it was impossible to defeat imperialism. After Argentina lost the war, a sector of the vanguard and the mass movement ended up reaching the same conclusion: “imperialism cannot be beaten,” because of its military and economic superiority. An idea that the Argentine bourgeoisie continued to advocate with great force. However, a serious study of facts shows that this triumph was totally possible if not for the dictatorship’s disastrous political-military conduction of the war.
Let us first look at the military issue. We have said that Margaret Thatcher sent to Malvinas the strongest British naval fleet since the Second World War. But, in the previous decades, that fleet had been trained within a “hypothesis of conflict” scenario with the Soviet Union in the Baltic Sea and the North Sea. For this reason, it consisted mainly of modern but small and medium-sized ships (suitable for relatively short distances), and not of fleets commanded by large aircraft carriers. In other words, it was too fragile to cover thousands of kilometres in the open sea, especially in the face of air attacks. The Argentine air force (the best fighting force in the war) took advantage of this weakness and, with unexpected attacks of French Mirage aircraft and Exocet missiles, caused heavy damage along the way.
Admiral Sandy Woodward, commander of the British fleet, kept a personal diary that later became a book. It states that his first thought was that the mission was going to be “a cakewalk” but then came to the following conclusion: “… the Royal Navy had not experienced conflict at sea on this scale since the Second World War.” (11) For example, the sinking of the logistic ship Atlantic Conveyor on May 25 represented for the British task force the loss of the ship itself and of “twelve aircraft, ten helicopters, two Sea Harriers, a complete lot of spare parts for planes and helicopters, all the equipment for a brigade of 4,500 men, […] six supply trucks, combat vehicles, American Sidewinder missiles, and a vertical landing strip that was going to be set up in San Carlos.” (12)
Of course, on several missions, Argentine planes were shot down and pilots were killed, which eroded the air strike capability. But it is clear that, in the military field, the deepening of this tactic could have won the war. The Argentine military government had the possibility of increasing its military air and sea combat capability, as several countries offered aircraft and other supplies. This was the case of the offer by Peru of 10 aircraft, which were accepted; (13) the Cuban government of Fidel Castro made a rejected offer of a submarine, (14) while the Libyan government offered aircraft, pilots and missiles (the missiles were accepted but neither the aircraft nor the pilots). (15)
In other words, the possibility of Argentina winning the Malvinas War was raised but, as we have said, it was the political-military leadership of the Galtieri government that prevented this possible triumph. Admiral Woodward himself draws this conclusion, considering that, on several occasions, the bombs dropped by Argentine planes did not explode: “if they had hit either of our aircraft carriers, the British would have been finished… If the Args’ bombs had been properly fused … we would surely have lost Antrim, Plymouth, Argonaut, Broadsword and Glasgow.” (16)
The political character of wars
Once it is demonstrated that Argentina could have won the war against Britain, some argue that, in view of that imperialist defeat (a fact that would have had a worldwide impact), Ronald Reagan’s government would have started a war against Argentina, which would have been much more difficult to win.
Of course, considering the aggressive character of U.S. imperialism and of Ronald Reagan’s government specifically, such a hypothesis could not be put aside. However, the international context and the recent past were not favourable: in 1975 it had been defeated in the Vietnam War, which had generated the so-called “Vietnam syndrome.” That is, the insecurity of entering into new invasions or wars against weaker nations for fear of their long-term unfavourable outcome. (17)
For this reason, in the context of a very strong revolutionary process in Central America, the Reagan administration did not attack directly or carry out invasions. In Nicaragua, it supported the Contras (counter-revolutionary guerrillas)guerrillas confronting the Sandinista government and, in El Salvador, it staged a coup d’état that installed a dictatorship to confront the ongoing civil war against the Salvadoran guerrillas.
At the same time, there was a strong anti-imperialist feeling among the Latin American peoples that led them to support Argentina. We saw the case of Peru and, certainly, this was not the only case: the Argentinian newspaper La Razón reported in late May that: “… 25,000 Bolivians living in northern Argentina volunteered to collaborate in different tasks during the war.” (18) Also the support in military material offered by the Peruvian and Cuban governments. That is to say, it was possible that this hypothetical war would not only be against Argentina but would become an anti-imperialist Latin American war against the US.
This leads us to another deeper consideration: although it is a very important factor, military superiority does not always define the course of a war, because political factors enter into it as a central element. If military superiority were considered in isolation, imperialism would be invincible. However, history shows that it has been defeated several times in wars against weaker nations when it had to face vigorous national resistance and, many times, mobilizations against the war in the imperialist country itself. For example, in the aforementioned Vietnam War, and also in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, all of which ended in defeat. So, even at the cost of suffering and sacrifice, imperialism can be defeated militarily and politically by weaker nations.
We have spoken of the dictatorship’s terrible political-military leadership that, among other things, it did not take a single political-economic measure against imperialism, such as not paying the foreign debt or expropriating British and US corporations, banks and industries in the country. Nor did it take advantage of the mobilizations and support it received in the continent. For example, encouraging other governments to take similar measures or to form brigades of Latin American combatants to fight on the Argentine side. Both courses of action would have been central factors that would have helped an Argentine triumph.
Final considerations and a brief balance sheet
We remember and analyze the Malvinas War not only as a historical fact but also for its lessons. In the first place, as we have seen, for the real possibility of defeating imperialism. The bourgeoisie’s policy of “de-malvinizing” history aims at erasing an anti-imperialist feeling of struggle from workers and the people. However, every time that in a soccer stadium, in a concert or in a mobilization the people chant “he who won’t jump is an Englishman,” it is demonstrated that they are very far from being able to erase that anti-imperialist feeling.
Secondly, the same (or similar) mechanisms of reasoning that led Trotskyist organizations to mistaken characterizations and policies (that abandoned Lenin’s and Trotsky’s criteria) are repeated today in other organizations before the war in Ukraine. (19)
We want to end this article by pointing out that we are proud that in 1982 the recently founded International Workers League – Fourth International (IWL-FI) followed Lenin’s and Trotsky’s criteria and applied them by fostering an intense campaign of support for Argentina in the Malvinas War. In the same way that today we are proud to continue applying those criteria before the war in Ukraine. They are part of our DNA.
3 – L. Trotsky, La lucha antiimperialista es la clave de la liberación. Una entrevista con Mateo Fossa, September 1938.
4 – Lenin, Socialism and War, 1915.
5 – See Panorama Internacional, May 1982.
6 – See Estrategia Socialista N. 2, June 1982.
7 – TILC Resolutions, April 1982.
9 – Estrategia Socialista N. 3, September 1982.
10 – On this subject see, for example, the Joint Statement of the British Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP) and the Argentine Movimiento Al Socialismo (MAS) (1/2/1987) on https://archivoleontrotsky.org/.
11 – Sandy Woodward. One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Battle Group Commander, 1992.
12 – Cisilino, Juan Manuel et al, Si quieres saber cómo te fue en la guerra, pregúntale a tu enemigo”. Aportes británicos para repensar la guerra de Malvinas
16 – Sandy Woodward. One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Battle Group Commander, 1992.
17 – See, for example, Alejandro Iturbe, The “Democratic Reaction”: From Vietnam To Iraq Syndrome
19 – See, for example, Controversy Over the “No to War” in Ukraine Slogan