30 years on: some reflections on the left and the Falklands war

April 2, 2012 at 6:51 am (anti-fascism, AWL, history, Human rights, imperialism, internationalism, Jim D, Marxism, political groups, rights, SWP, Thatcher, trotskyism)

By Sean Matgamna (written in May 2007)

The two month “Falklands War” between Britain and Argentina in 1982 was a freak event. It was part of no larger conflict; no issue other than possession of the islands was involved.

Both Argentina and Britain were bourgeois states. Neither of them oppressed, and neither of them was trying to conquer the other, or likely to, as a result of the war.

The Falklands Islands were not a base from which Britain oppressed others in the region, and never had been. The only issue between Britain and Argentina, the cause of the war, was the fate of the Falklands Islands and their inhabitants.

Living 400 miles across the South Atlantic from Argentina, the Falkland Islanders were British. In identity, desired international affiliation, language and culture, they were British. The islands had been British since the 1830s, when the modern Argentine state had not yet emerged.

Argentina’s claim to the Falklands rested on a few years of formal possession by Argentina’s predecessor state, a century and a half in the past, and on their comparative geographical proximity to it.

Against that stood the wishes of the inhabitants to remain British and their no less strong desire not to be subjected to Argentine rule.

Argentina’s rulers were, under General Galtieri, a murderous, unpopular military junta. By invading the islands, they sought to make themselves less unpopular at home and rally the forces of Argentine chauvinism behind them.

Margaret Thatcher and her government, though their political standing in Britain would improve greatly as a result of the war, were at that point very unpopular at home too.

On the merits of the issue, right lay with Britain, defending the Falklanders. To recognise that did not imply support for Thatcher’s war, and we did not support it: indeed, we ran the slogan “The Enemy is At Home” above the masthead of the weekly paper, Socialist Organiser, throughout the war.

On the other side, nothing but Argentine chauvinism could lead socialists, if they were capable of registering what was happening in the world around them, to support Galtieri’s invasion and occupation.

In fact a fantasy “let’s pretend” “anti-imperialism” could and did lead many not only (rightly) to oppose Thatcher’s war but also (wrongly) positively to back the fascistic Galtieri junta. Many socialists, and not only the “revolutionaries”, became honorary Argentine chauvinists for the duration of the war. Why? How?

On the grounds that its opponent was Britain, sections of the left cast Argentina as the hero in a drama that was going on nowhere else except in their own heads. They lost themselves in a delirium of “anti-Imperialist” political fantasising.

The fact that there was nothing “anti-imperialist” in the Argentine seizure of territory 400 miles from Argentina, inhabited for generations by people who did not want to be part of Argentina and had done Argentina no harm, did not faze them at all. Your “Anti-Imperialist”, when desperate for a “fix”, tends to be impervious to reason and arguement.

All the activist left opposed Thatcher’s war. Beyond that, the left divided into two groups. That time round the SWP was on the side of sanity and rational politics. Along with “Socialist Organiser” (what is now AWL), it refused to support Argentina, its military rulers, or the occupation of the Falkland islands.

(Militant (now the Socialist Party/ Socialist Appeal) had a bizarre approach all of its own, declaring that the alternative to the war was “a Socialist Federation of Britain, the Falkland Islands, and Argentina”.)

The other main group in the left consisted of a large part of the softer Labourite left, around Labour Briefing (The Argentinians were fighting Thatcher, weren’t they? What more did we want?); the Mandelite Fourth International, then a sizeable organisation, the International Marxist Group; the Workers Revolutionary Party, crazy as a bed-bug; Workers’ Power; and the other half of the organisation to which the tendency which is now AWL then belonged, the Workers’ Socialist League.

The pro-Argentine part of the WSL was led by Alan Thornett (now of the ISG).

The story of what happened in the WSL, and how Thornett’s section made themselves the pioneers of what today is the “anti-Imperialist” politics of the kitsch-left in Britain, including the SWP, has a lot of light to shed on the current dispute between the “anti-Imperialists” and ourselves.

(Some of the documents of that dispute can be found in Workers’ Liberty 2/3.)

The WSL of 1982 was the result of the fusion, in July 1981, of the forerunner of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, Socialist Organiser, and a group that had separated from the WRP seven years earlier, called the WSL. In the fusion, we took the name Socialist Organiser for the joint paper and WSL for the joint organisation.

After nine months, the unification began to break down around the Falklands war. The organisation divided into warring and, as it proved, irreconcilable, factions.

We all agreed on opposing the war, and at the start all of us had rejected positive support for Argentina and declared ourselves in principle for the right of self-determination for the Falkland Islanders.

Six weeks after the British fleet set sail, the Thornett group decided that we should back the Argentine military junta against Britain. Soon they claimed that backing Argentina was a principle of “anti-imperialism”.

First, without any prior warning, they tried a small coup, changing our position by a vote of five to three on an Executive Committee whose full membership was 12. After the National Committee majority rejected and overturned that, they started to reconstitute the old WSL and counterpose it to the rest of the organisation.

From then on, the new WSL unravelled, and within it the Thornett section itself unravelled even faster, scattering their supporters out of the organisation in all directions.

The late Alan Clinton, a Thornetteite who would become Labour Leader of Islington Council some years later, coined what then became the response of the Thornettites to all talk of the rights of the Falkland Islanders: “The Falkland Islanders? They wouldn’t populate two streets in Islington!” That disposed of their rights!

They denounced us as “pro-imperialists” because our attitude, “defeatist on both sides” implied that we wanted the fascistic military government of Argentina overthrown by the Argentinian workers during the war. They insisted it was the duty of “anti-imperialists” to support the Argentinian military forces against Britain, to be “revolutionary defencists” for “anti-imperialist” Argentina and its military dictators.

I responded to their bizarre solicitude for the Argentine military with the statement that I’d be happy to see the whole military apparatus of the Argentine state, whose sole function in history — apart from extirpating the native Amerindian population of the country — has been internal policing, sunk to the bottom of the South Atlantic. They went into shock; and when they came out of it some of them denounced me as “an agent of British imperialism”.

We on our side of the common organisation, thought of the Thornettites as hopelessly disoriented people, politically drunk on foolish, self-indulgent fantasy politics; and as people who were shamefully ignorant of the Trotskyist political tradition in which they claimed to stand.

“Revolutionary defencism” for Argentina was political nonsense; but leave that aside. They understood it to mean that socialists should “subordinate” class struggle within Argentina to the potential good effects of an Argentine victory, “even if it strengthens Galtieri”, on “the international balance of forces”. That had nothing to do with Trotskyist politics or the Trotskyist tradition.

Trotsky, for instance, being entirely on China’s side against the Japanese invaders in the 1930s, advocated a war of national defense. Nonetheless, he advocated a working class revolution against the Chaing Government, during that war.

Their joke-shop, buffoon-fantasy “anti-imperialism” was no harmless bit of inconsequential nonsense, though: it led them to an all too real support of the foul Argentine regime and its mini-imperialism in the Falklands.

Today the biggest forces on the left, in the first place the SWP, have the politics, or very close to them, that the Thornettites had then. Their “anti-Imperialism” is no less empty.(Alan Thornett can rightly claim to have been the Copernicus of this sort of anti-imperialism”, and for all I know, he does!)

They don’t just oppose our own government – they back some of the foulest regimes on Earth, on the sole criterion that they oppose the British and US governments.

The SWP’s descent into such politics did not start with Iraq. It started with their switch in 1987 to support Iran in the Iran/ Iraq war, on the grounds that the USA was backing Iraq. (It had been doing that for the previous seven years.) Until then, the SWP had opposed the Iran/ Iraq war on both sides.

The SWP’s descent from Marxist-socialist politics first reached its present level of political dementia in the Balkans War of 1999. They tried to build an “anti-war movement” in support of a Serbia which was engaged in attempted genocide against the people of its “internal colony”, Kosova. Serbia’s activity in Kosova was the sole issue in the war, which stopped when the Serb Army withdrew from Kosova.

The SWP learned nothing from that experience. Then came 9/11.

The New Anti-Imperialism identified itself, so to speak, to the kitsch left by Bin Laden’s great blows for human liberation in New York and Washington.

There was a new and vigorous “anti-Imperialism” loose in the world.

But this was a comprehensively reactionary “anti-Imperialism”? It was not “anti-Imperialism” in any sense in which socialists and consistent liberals are anti-Imperialist? Don’t be silly, comrade!

Nothing is or ever could be more reactionary than America, Britain and their allies and stooges. History moves in strange and unexpected ways. The Islamic clerical fascists are against America, and that’s all that matters now.

This was a stark change for the SWP in more ways than one. In the mid-1990s, when Muslims in Bosnia were being butchered, the SWP kept strictly aloof from any hint of supporting them, or denouncing the international arms embargo which hindered them in defending themselves.

They were still remiss in their Islamismophilia during the Balkans war, when they sided with Serbia, which was slaughtering and driving out Muslim Albanians.

Then came 9/11. In the Afghan war the SWP jumped “on board” — and with all the shamelessness of old-time Stalinists shuffling when their “line” switched.

In the Afghan war, Socialist Worker went so far in “supporting” the enemy of our British and American enemies as to attempt to explain away the horrendous treatment of women by the Taliban regime (Socialist Worker, 6 October 2001).

At the heart of all such thinking is the syndrome where the left defines itself largely in negative terms – by what we are against, not what we are for.

The moral, political and intellectual crisis of the left today takes the form of a comprehensive collapse of positive norms. But it is cumulative. It has been going on a long time. The Falkland War is now a quarter of a century in the past.

You can trace the present state of the left back to the attitudes which the once-very influential Stalinists, and some of the “orthodox Trotskyists”, cultivated towards the USSR and other Stalinist regimes. They were unconditionally on the side of those regimes against “Imperialism”, by which they meant the advanced capitalist countries of the west.

I was shocked into the awareness of something qualitatively new during the Balkans war of 1999. We did not support NATO, but we emphatically refused to do or say anything which implied support for or complaisance towards the primitive ethno-imperialism of the Serbian regime. Serbia had launched a genocidal drive in Kosova which NATO – in its own way, for its own interests, and after over a decade of complaisance towards Serbian imperialism – was attempting to check for the sake of regional stability. (See the dossier on Kosova in Workers’ Liberty 2/3).

Yet the kitsch-left and in the first place the SWP created a one-sided “anti-war” campaign which in fact was so designed as to give maximum support to Serbian imperialism.

“Anti-war”? The Serbian government could at will have “stopped the war” by withdrawing from Kosova (as eventually they did). If NATO had abandoned its action without Serbia withdrawing, then war would have continued – one-sided war by Serbia against the Kosovars.

The SWP indulged in a fantasy of anti-imperialism as bizarre as, and greatly more irresponsible than, that of poor old Alan Thornett when he passionately championed the anti-imperialism of the murderous Argentine junta in the Falklands war.

Or take another measuring rod. Repeatedly in articles and speeches over many, many years, I have used an incident in the history of the French Communist Party to illustrate the moral and political degeneracy of Stalinism.

In 1938, the leader of French Stalinism, Maurice Thorez, publicly proposed that the catchment-area of the “Popular Front” should be extended to include “patriotic”, that is anti-German, French fascists.

I can still recall how shocked I was when, young and naïve, I first read about this.

The PCF never achieved a popular front with patriotic fascists. I have lived to see people who say they stand in Trotsky’s political tradition realise something very like it – the SWP’s “popular front” in the “anti-war” movement with the obscurantist authoritarians of the Muslim Brotherhood – MAB – who advocate the creation of Islamic dictatorships all across the Muslim world.

You could quibble that they are not quite fascists, but it would be only a quibble.

They rightly opposed the 2003 war, but did it by lining up squarely with the Saddam Hussein Regime. They used Saddam’s long-time British Stooge, George Galloway, as the face and voice of the pro-Saddam “Anti- war” movement.

They have given abject and uncritical support to the Sunni supremacist and Jihadist “resistance” in Iraq against the bourgeois-democratic — more or less — forces in Iraq.

This “Left”, this kitsch-left, is far gone in political corruption, disintegration and decay.

In this situation, the first responsibility of honest socialists is to tell the truth. Describe things as they are. Only in that way can socialists prepare the future.

File:The Sun (Gotcha).png

The Sun’s (in)famous headline after the Belgrano sinking: all the serious left opposed Thatcher’s war, but that shouldn’t have meant  supporting Argentina’s military rulers or the occupation of the Falklands.


  1. wobsy said,

    Wise words: many thanks for sharing.

  2. daibhidhdeux said,

    That will be a Jesus Christ & how many angels birling on a supra-microscopic pinhead (?).

    Lord God, how many of you were/are agents for capitalist and imperialist/chauvinist powers and their apparatuses?

    What a shower of pseudo-intellectual-scientific prima donnas.

  3. Forlornehope said,

    If anyone ever doubted that the left was totally irrelevant to anything they would only have to read this article.

  4. DW said,

  5. Monsuer Jelly est Formidable said,

    Victorian moarNs on the falklands and patriotism…

  6. Invictus_88 said,

    Good post! It’s worth remembering how sections of the left took sides back then, and it’s healthy to remind ourselves of some analogously daft allegiances today.

  7. Jim Denham said,

    Please change your name, Invictus. 89 or 87 would be OK.

  8. Jimmy said,

    Good article . I doubt the servicemen(and women) of the British armed forces that had to retrieve the incompetence of the Thatcher Gov that allowed the Argies to take the Falklands would be interested. 30 yrs is more than a lifetime for some.

  9. entdinglichung said,

  10. Invictus_82.75 said,

    Oh please, was 1988 such a bad year? Apparently so.

    On this blog, I will try to remember to adapt my username. As I’ve been using it since I was a teenager, I hope you’ll understand this occasion of forgetting.

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