Year in Review: 1998
The World Socialist Web Site was launched on February 14, 1998, in the midst of a mounting political crisis in the heart of world capitalism, the United States. The right-wing campaign to bring down the Clinton administration erupted in the form of the media-driven scandal over Monica Lewinsky, culminating in Clinton’s impeachment in mid-December. At the same time, on the other side of the world, one of the longest-standing props of US imperialism collapsed with the demise of the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia.
From the very beginning of the Clinton impeachment crisis, the WSWS drew attention to the underlying class issues and the implications of the right-wing effort to cripple or remove the Clinton administration for the democratic rights of the working class. Pointing out the repeated use of sex scandals to shift official politics in America in a reactionary direction, the WSWS explained that the central issue was not Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky, or his lying about it, but the conflict within the American ruling elite and what it revealed about the crisis and decay of American democracy. The first major commentary published after the official launching of the site on February 14, 1998 was headlined “The social roots of the Clinton crisis.”
This initial statement traced the attack on Clinton to the rise of a parasitic financial elite that demanded ever-greater cuts in social spending and a more aggressive assertion of US strategic and economic interests overseas, and viewed Clinton’s efforts to satisfy their concerns as insufficient.
On the basis of this analysis, the WSWS developed a principled approach to the Clinton crisis, opposing the right-wing campaign to mount a political coup against a twice-elected president while giving no political support to the Clinton administration or the Democratic Party. The WSWS exposed the efforts of Clinton and the Democratic Party to curry favor with the ultra-right through such provocations as US air strikes against Iraq and the missile attacks on Afghanistan and Sudan that followed the bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Dozens of articles and commentaries examined the day-to-day unfolding of the political crisis, coupled with major statements at the most important turning points.
In “The impeachment of President Clinton: Is America drifting toward civil war?,” the WSWS made a political warning after the decision by the Republicans to impeach Clinton, despite their repudiation by the voters in the November congressional elections. It noted the unprecedented ferocity of the political warfare in Washington, despite the relatively insignificant political differences between the right-wing Clinton administration and its ultra-right opponents. The intensity of the conflict must in the final analysis, the statement argued, reflect more profound tensions within American society:
The crisis in Washington arises from an interaction of complex political, social and economic processes. Bourgeois democracy is breaking down beneath the weight of accumulated and increasingly insoluble contradictions. The economic and technological processes associated with the globalization of the world economy have undercut the social conditions and class relationships upon which the political stability of America has long depended.
The most significant aspects of this erosion are the proletarianization of vast strata of American society, the decay in the size and economic influence of the traditional middle classes, and the growth of social inequality, reflected in the staggering disparities in the distribution of both wealth and income. The United States is the most unequal of the major industrialized nations, with a far greater gap between the financial elite and the rest of the population than 25 or even 50 years ago...
The unprecedented degree of social inequality imparts terrific tensions to society. There is a vast chasm between the wealthy and the working masses that is hardly mediated by a middle class. The intermediate layers which once provided a social buffer, and which constitute the main base of support for bourgeois democracy, can no longer play that role.
This social differentiation explained both the aggressiveness of the Republican right, which proceeded to impeachment in ruthless disregard for public opinion, and the prostration of the Democratic Party, which long ago abandoned its liberal reform program to become the junior party of political reaction, and which refused to make any appeal for popular support even when its control of the White House was in jeopardy.
The WSWS at every point exposed the impotence and cowardice of Clinton and the Democrats and the inability and unwillingness of this party of big business to defend the democratic rights of the people against an assault from the far right.
Throughout the crisis, the WSWS criticized those pseudo-left tendencies that dismissed the political crisis in Washington as insignificant or irrelevant, thereby disarming the working class in the face of the mounting threat to democratic rights.
At the same time, the WSWS maintained intransigent opposition to the actions of the Clinton administration as the leadership of the most powerful imperialist nation in the world. We denounced the US air strikes on Iraq and other acts of aggression ordered by the White House, as in the statement published December 18, 1998, in the midst of impeachment, entitled “The bombing of Iraq, a shameful chapter in American history.”
The other major political development analyzed on the WSWS in 1998 was the upheaval in Indonesia, the first major political consequence of the financial crisis that exploded in Asia in 1997, and which produced further aftershocks in Malaysia, South Korea, Thailand and other countries in the region.
As popular protests escalated in Indonesia, the WSWS elaborated a perspective for the mass movement that explained that a successful struggle for democracy and against the military dictatorship was only possible on the basis of the mobilization of the Indonesian proletariat fighting on the basis of a socialist perspective.
Commentaries like “Which social classes support the struggle for democracy in Indonesia?” and “The struggle for democracy in Indonesia, What are the social and political tasks facing the masses?” brought forward the analysis first made by Leon Trotsky in his theory of Permanent Revolution. Trotsky demonstrated that in the oppressed former colonial countries like Indonesia, the national capitalist class was incapable of establishing either democracy or genuine national independence from imperialism. Only the working class, mobilizing behind it the rural poor and all oppressed social layers, was capable of carrying out these tasks.
The WSWS explained the connection between the events in Indonesia and the crisis of Asian economies the previous year, beginning with the collapse of the Thai currency, the baht, and continuing throughout southeast Asia, eventually affecting China, Korea and Japan.
Several articles by Nick Beams, including “Deflation, currency turmoil and production cuts: A sign of things to come” and “One year since the start of the ‘Asian meltdown’: Growing signs of world slump,” traced the connection between the financial crisis that began in July 1997, the political upheavals in the region, and the broader implications for world capitalism and world politics. The conclusion drawn was that political explosions could be anticipated, not only in the “emerging” economies of Asia, but in the main centers of world capitalism as well.
Late in the year came the detention of former Chilean military ruler Augusto Pinochet in Britain, held on an arrest warrant issued by a Spanish judge for crimes committed during the junta’s 17-year reign of terror. Commentaries like “An answer to Pinochet’s defenders” and “The significance of Pinochet’s arrest and the lessons of the 1973 coup” explored the historical issues raised in the Chilean events and explained why bourgeois leaders from Margaret Thatcher to Fidel Castro had rallied to defend the mass murderer. Ultimately, the British Labour government of Prime Minister Tony Blair blocked his extradition and sent Pinochet home to Chile, where he enjoyed immunity from prosecution.
Other major world events covered by the WSWS in 1998 include:
- The power-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland between Sinn Fein and the right-wing Protestant parties: “British-Irish agreement enshrines sectarian divisions”
- Dueling nuclear weapons tests by India and Pakistan: “Gathering war clouds in South Asia”
- The financial collapse in Russia and its impact on world markets: “International market turmoil: a sea-change in world economy”
- The German parliamentary elections leading to the entry of the Greens into the government for the first time: “A change of power in Bonn”
- The election of Hugo Chavez as president of Venezuela: “Venezuelan and foreign capital size up the former coup leader”
The WSWS covered the most important struggles of the international workers movement, including a wave of local strikes at General Motors plants in Michigan, the Air France strike, the lockout of Patrick stevedores in Australia, and strikes by Bell Atlantic and other telecommunications workers in the US. Our coverage combined extensive on-the-spot reporting and interviews with strikers and sharp warnings on the role of the unions in strangling these struggles and subordinating workers to the capitalist ruling elite.
The first year of the World Socialist Web Site demonstrated from the very beginning the integrated conception that animated the decision to launch its publication. It was not a matter of commenting only on a narrowly defined working-class movement (the trade unions and their periphery), or even extending this to a somewhat broader political arena, but of developing and elaborating a Marxist analysis of all of the significant political, social and cultural issues relevant to the development of a socialist culture.
This was very much in the tradition set by Lenin and the Bolshevik Party and explained in his seminal work, What Is To Be Done, in which he declared that the task of the Marxist leadership of the working class was to go among all classes and put forward an independent working class standpoint on all issues of broad social relevance.
Thus, to give only a few examples, the World Socialist Web Site provided coverage of social issues ranging from the prosecution of a 12-year-old boy as an adult on murder charges in Michigan, to the lynching deaths of a poor black man, James Byrd, in Texas, and a young gay man, Mathew Shepard, in Wyoming, to attacks on the democratic rights of refugees in Australia.
The first year of the WSWS also marked a major advance in Marxist aesthetics, particularly in relation to film criticism. The year began with a review of Titanic, a film undeservedly and shamefully lauded by the critics, which reviewer David Walsh described as “a bad piece of work – poorly scripted, poorly acted, poorly directed.” The review set the tone for the WSWS's arts coverage, which has been characterized by a spirited defense of artistic integrity and seriousness.
This was followed by reviews of films as varied as Wag the Dog, Amistad, Taste of Cherry, Bulworth, The Truman Show, Saving Private Ryan, Pleasantville, Life Is Beautiful, and Elizabeth, as well as accounts of film festivals in Berlin, Sydney, San Francisco, Toronto and London. There were art reviews on exhibits of the works of Rodchenko and Max Ernst, among others.
In January 1998, just before the initial launch of the WSWS, the Socialist Equality Party in Australia organized an International Summer School, the first such international symposium organized by the International Committee of the Fourth International. Lectures were delivered on fundamental issues of Marxist history and theory, including on Leon Trotsky, the significance of globalization, Castroism and petit-bourgeois nationalism, the relation of art and socialism, and the nature of the trade unions.
The WSWS provided extensive reporting on the political work of the sections of the International Committee of the Fourth International, including memorial meetings following the death of Jean Brust, a founding member of the Workers League, predecessor of the Socialist Equality Party, who joined the American Trotskyist movement in the 1930s.
There was coverage of the election campaigns of the Socialist Equality Party in Germany and Sri Lanka. In the latter country, the WSWS spearheaded a campaign for the release of five members of the SEP who were detained by the LTTE, the Tamil separatist movement that was then fighting a guerilla war against the regime in Colombo.
This effort mobilized support around the globe, particularly in the far-flung Tamil diaspora, where there was widespread understanding of the long and principled record of the Sri Lankan SEP in defense of the rights of the Tamil minority. Ultimately, all five SEP members were set free unharmed—a demonstration of the power of this Internet-based campaign even in a small and relatively isolated island country.
A statement issued by SEP national secretary Wije Dias declared:
On behalf of the SEP as a whole, I would like to say that we are deeply gratified by the support our defense campaign has received from working class and human rights organizations and from concerned individuals here and in Europe, North America, India and Australia…
My thanks also go out to the World Socialist Web Site and our sister parties around the world. They have worked tirelessly to bring this matter to the attention of the international working class and to rally the support of all those who uphold democratic rights. And I would like to thank the many working class parties, unions, human rights organizations, artists and intellectuals in Sri Lanka who called for the SEP members' release. The support we have received has truly been impressive.
The achievements of the WSWS during its first year were based upon bringing forward the political capital accumulated in the course of decades of struggle for the principles of Trotskyism against Stalinism, social-democracy, and those former adherents of the Fourth International who capitulated to the apparent strength of these pro-capitalist and counter-revolutionary forces during the heyday of the post-World War II economic boom.
In that context, one of the most important experiences recorded by the WSWS was the collaboration between the International Committee and Vadim Rogovin, the historian whose monumental six-volume history of the socialist opposition to Stalin, focusing on the central role of Leon Trotsky, established definitively that in the Left Opposition and the Fourth International, there had been an alternative to the crimes and betrayals of the Stalinist bureaucracy.
Vadim Rogovin died in September 1998, and memorial meetings were held by supporters of the International Committee in Moscow, Berlin and London to celebrate his life and pledge to carry on his work, through the translation of his works into major languages to make it accessible to a world audience. David North, editorial chairman of the WSWS, summed up the significance of Rogovin’s life and work in remarks delivered to these meetings, “In memory of Vadim Z. Rogovin.”