This article appeared in the July-August 1999 issue of The Socialist. I'm posting it here partly because it's no longer on line elsewhere, but also because the issues it deals with have been getting some play recently--as in this Salon piece.
Many of the article's points are wrong or dated, but some aren't as off-base as they might appear at first. The WTO demonstrations hit Seattle just six months later, and many left-liberal activists did in fact break with the Democratic Party in 2000 to support Ralph Nader. The radicalization process was reversed in response to the September 11 attacks and the lunacy of the George W. Bush administration, but it started up again with the economic crisis in 2008 and the emergence of a new generation of activists. Since then we've seen the rise of the Dreamers, of Occupy, of Fight for 15 and Black Lives Matter, all movements that have shown little interest in the Democratic Party. And while the Sanders campaign is taking place within the party, its whole basis is defiance of the Democratic leadership's neoliberal orthodoxy.
I think my piece's biggest mistake was missing the importance of mass incarceration in the Clinton years. And the biggest irony is that in 1999 Bernie Sanders voted to back the Clintons' hawkishness; he seems to have improved a lot since then. --DW
The US Left: Split, or Free at Last?
By David Wilson
In just two months of bombing Yugoslavia Bill Clinton has done what Lyndon Johnson needed three years to do with Vietnam: he has split the majority of US activists from the Democrats in a way that is unlikely to allow any reconciliation in the near future.
It's hard to believe that just six months ago many activists were streaming to the polls to "hold their noses and vote for the Democrats." Now these same activists are forming picket lines outside the offices of the "Progressive Caucus" Congress members, who form the hard core of the war party.
On Apr. 26 some 30 former supporters sat in on the Burlington offices of Rep. Bernie Sanders, self-described "independent socialist" of Vermont, to protest his support for Clinton's war. Sanders' staff called the cops; 15 activists were arrested. Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) has had to arrest even more activists--30 of his Santa Cruz constituents since May 13. In one protest, on May 22, the Coalition to Stop the Bombing of Yugoslavia protested as Farr spoke at a Democratic Central Committee Annual Awards dinner. The activists festooned the sidewalk with slogans and pictures, distributed paper "body parts" symbolizing people blown apart by NATO cluster bombs, played a tape of bombs falling in Belgrade, and serenaded Farr with a new song: "Sam Farr, weak in the cranium, bombs the Serbs with depleted uranium!" Police arrested five protesters, including a Free Radio Santa Cruz 96.3 FM reporter who was taping the action.
Getting the Monkey Off Our Backs
Many people have written sadly about the "split in the left." It is indeed a sad, even tragic thing to watch a few once-serious leftists--people with real character and intelligence--turning themselves into cogs in a war machine. But the real split is not in the left but within the ranks of left-liberals, who have finally been forced to decide which they are: left or liberal. And most have chosen the left.
There is in fact nothing tragic about this split, which finally frees activists from an alliance with the Democrats that did nothing but impede effective organizing.
Look at the actual record of the Clinton administration. Take the doctrine of "humanitarian intervention," a bit of war propaganda cooked up in the early 1990s by Establishment think tanks like the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.* Its first test was the Bush-Clinton invasion of Somalia in 1992-93. The avowed goal was to feed famine victims; the result was the massacre of hundreds of Somali civilians in the streets of Mogadishu.
Next came the comparatively bloodless 1994 invasion of Haiti, ostensibly to end the criminal rule of Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras and death-squad leader Emmanuel "Toto" Constant. Both turned out to be on the CIA payroll. Cedras now lives comfortably in Panama; Constant lives in Queens, with the Clinton administration shielding him from a Haitian extradition request. The third humanitarian intervention was the NATO's brief 1995 air war in Bosnia Herzegovina, which in effect gave the international community's seal of approval to Tudjman's ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Serbs from Croatia, legally recognized the fascist "Republika Srpska" in Bosnia, made Milosevic the "guarantor of peace" in the Balkans, and set the stage for the current war.
Understandably, the proponents of humanitarian intervention showed no interest in reviewing the records of their earlier adventures. Instead, they pushed ahead with the next intervention, recycling the rhetoric ("you can't just stand there and do nothing, we must stop the genocide, don't you care about the human tragedy?"). And now they've brought us, once more, a country bombed back to the Stone Age.
Organizing Against the Sweatshop President
Clinton's neoliberal economic agenda--NAFTA in 1993, "welfare reform" and "immigration reform" in 1996, plans to "save" Social Security, countless embargoes against developing nations, efforts to revive the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI)--will prove even more destructive in the long run than his military actions.
The president is reportedly concerned about how history will remember him. Many activists are starting to see his accomplishments in terms of how many welfare recipients are forced into slave labor programs, how many undocumented immigrants are working in sweatshops, how many production jobs have moved to low-wage havens in the "Third World." When Clinton took office in 1993, about 400,000 Mexicans worked in northern Mexico's vast maquiladora zone, making $50 or less a week assembling products sold mostly in the US for the benefit of US corporations; last January the number of maquiladora employees officially passed the one million mark. History will probably remember Clinton as the sweatshop president.
Throughout the world left and grassroots organizations have been working together over the last decade to build opposition to these neoliberal economic policies. Just since the Balkan war began, the Americas have been convulsed by strikes and militant protests against IMF austerity programs, against privatization, against union-busting. In Mexico and Argentina, university and high school students organized two of the largest student strikes of the last 30 years. The Argentine strike quickly won a rollback of education cutbacks; the Mexican strike is still continuing after more than a month, with broad support from other sectors.
There are a number of reasons for the failure of activists to build this sort of resistance in the US. The main reason, of course, is that the economic crisis has yet to strike here. Although Clinton's welfare, immigration and trade policies have been a significant drag on wages, so far the effect has been not so much to hurt the majority of workers as to keep them from participating in the boom. But the left's de facto alliance with the Democrats has had an important effect on organizing. How could activists organize effectively against the neoliberal economic program when they still called neoliberal legislators "our friends in Congress," when they were still rallying to defend Sweatshop Bill from "the vast rightwing conspiracy," when they were still supporting the US's ability to intervene everywhere and anywhere it chooses?
The War Room antics in Washington have helped us kick the Democratic Party habit. Just as in 1967 and 1968, activists at last have the scary but liberating ability to act on their own. We may not use our new freedom wisely--to a large extent we failed then--but at least we have it. Now let's get down to work on some long-overdue organizing.
May 29, 1999
* See the Endowment's 1992 report, Changing Our Ways: America in the New
World, pp 50-51.