The Falkland Islands, small specks in the South Atlantic, were annexed by Britain and settled by British people in the 1830s.
There had been no previous indigenous population. A century and a half later, in the 1970s and 80s, the islands were an odd little relic of empire. They had no huge economic or strategic importance. Their 1800 or so inhabitants, many of whom would move on to more clement climates after their time in the Falklands, had no desire to separate from Britain.
Argentina had long laid claim to the islands — calling them the Malvinas — on the grounds that it was the nearest landmass. It was not very near — 400 miles to the islands from the closest point on Argentina's coast, 2000 miles from Argentina's main population centres. The British population on the islands was longer-settled than the core of the Argentine nation, also European settlers, mostly from Spain and Italy.
The British government found the islands more a nuisance than an asset, and talked with the Argentine government about schemes to link them with Argentina while keeping some special rights.
In early 1982, however, Argentina's military dictators faced mounting popular revolt. They wanted a diversion to regain the initiative. They sent troops to seize the islands on 1-2 April. They hoped that Britain, which had long since abandoned any attempt to be a world military power, would lack motivation and resources to resist.
The British government of Margaret Thatcher did, however, counter-attack; re-took the islands after a short war (25 April to 14 June); and made itself a nice little political coup from the affair. Argentina’s military dictator Leopoldo Galtieri resigned three days after the end of the war. His military successor, Reynaldo Bignone, organised elections which brought back civilian government from October 1983. The civilian government brought Galtieri to court for his crimes.
Socialist Organiser, forerunner of Workers' Liberty, opposed Britain's war, but denounced the Argentine military's side of the war too. The Falkland islanders had the right to self-determination. Most would-be revolutionary socialists, however, thought differently. They saw the conflict as one between “imperialism” (Britain) and “anti-imperialism” or at any rate “non-imperialism” (Argentina), and felt duty-bound to take the “anti-imperialist” side.
Inside our organisation at the time, this view was put by a section led by Alan Thornett, who now adheres to the International Socialist Group and the monthly paper Resistance.
The first text below is a resolution (written by Martin Thomas and Sean Matgamna) which summarised the views of our wing of the organisation. The “tendency” referred to in it was a subsection of the Thornett wing which provided that wing with its theoretical justifications. The framework of our position is still the “Leninist defeatism” whose historical provenance is an artefact of the Stalinisers of the mid-1920s Communist International, and whose malign work Hal Draper analysed in WL 2/1. The merit of the resolution which marked a crossroads in the development of the Workers’ Liberty tendency, is that it tries to be concrete in its analysis and does not “read off” conclusions from the “epochal position”. The second text is an article written (for Workers' Socialist Review no.2) to argue for concrete analysis and argue against dogmatic text-worship, specifically using passages from Leon Trotsky's writings of the 1930s as mandates for the pro-Argentine position. At the time, despite our fervent opposition to the Russian military occupation of Afghanistan and to martial law in Poland (1981), we still held, at least nominally, to the view that the Stalinist states were “degenerated and deformed workers’ states”. We would formally abandon that in 1987, but the old view appears in these texts.
Freakish in its origins, at the time the Falklands war appeared to be an episode unlikely to have sequels. Hindsight tells a different story. It posed issues which would be posed again in a number of other wars. Over Kuwait (1991), Kosova (1999), Afghanistan (2001) and maybe Iraq (2003), wars would be waged by the Western big powers — the “main enemies at home”, to use Karl Liebknecht's phrase from World War 1, for European and North American socialists — but also ostensibly, and in part really, for aims we supported. As we supported the Falkland Islanders' freedom, but opposed the British state fighting for that in its own way and with its own concerns in mind, so also we would support the expulsion of conquerors from Kuwait, the preservation of the Kosovars' national existence, the ejection of the Taliban, and the ousting of Saddam Hussein, but remain politically hostile to the US-led forces fighting those wars. The 1982 debate thus has an importance beyond its immediate circumstances.