Year in Review: 1999

The year 1999 saw the major imperialist powers engage in an unprecedented multilateral gang-up against a small country, as NATO, led by the United States but including forces from Britain, Germany, France, Italy and other allied countries, rained bombs down on tiny Serbia, the largest fragment of the former Yugoslavia.

The NATO bombing of Serbia

The nominal pretext for the war was the conflict in Kosovo, a Serb province with a predominately Albanian population. A separatist movement, closely linked to gangsters and drug smugglers, received backing from the US and Germany and arrogated to itself the grandiose and misleading title of the “Kosovo Liberation Army.”

As part of its efforts to mobilize the working class and public opinion generally against the imperialist war, the International Committee of the Fourth International expanded the regular postings on the World Socialist Web Site from five days a week to six, starting the first week of May 1999.

The middle-class “left” groups, which had opposed imperialist bullying of small countries during the war in Vietnam, the US attacks on Cuba and Nicaragua, and the French colonial war in Algeria, rallied to the side of Washington, London and Berlin during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, first backing US intervention on the side of the Bosnian Muslims, then defending the bombing of Serbia.

These same groups also supported an equally reactionary display of old-fashioned colonialism, the Australian occupation of East Timor, again on a “humanitarian” pretext: the defense of the Timorese population against the Indonesian military dictatorship.

The World Socialist Web Site maintained a strong and principled opposition to the US-NATO bombing of Serbia, which killed thousands of innocent civilians and decimated much of the country’s infrastructure. 

As the WSWS explained, the devastating bombing campaign had nothing to do with preventing a “humanitarian disaster,” as government and military officials cynically claimed, but was the product of an increasingly bellicose US foreign policy. Washington saw the collapse of the Soviet Union as an opportunity to create a “unipolar” world order, with the United States as the unchallenged hegemon.

The analysis presented by the WSWS cut through the pretense of concern for the fate of the Albanian Kosovars and revealed the real reasons for the war, most notably in a May 24 statement entitled “Why is NATO at war with Yugoslavia? World power, oil and gold,” which outlined the world-historical context of the bombing campaign.

The WSWS warned that with the outbreak of the first armed conflict within Europe since World War II, escalating antagonisms among rival powers threatened to extend the war well beyond the boundaries of the former Yugoslavia. It was the precursor to far wider and more dangerous military adventures.

Once the bombing began, tensions flared between the United States and Russia, bringing the two nuclear-armed powers to the brink of open military conflict when a US commander proposed to attack Russian troops stationed in Serbia. There was, as well, the notorious incident in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, when a CIA-directed air strike hit the Chinese embassy in retaliation for China’s alignment with Serbian ruler Slobodan Milosevic.

The WSWS also analyzed the origins of the breakup of Yugoslavia in the economic and social crisis of the late 1980s, which led to the demise of the Stalinist-ruled regimes throughout Eastern Europe. In the late 1980s, millions of Yugoslav workers were laid off as state firms were shut down and state services slashed. Strikes and mass industrial actions threatened the former Stalinists’ imposition of the diktats of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank on the working class. The ex-Stalinist leaders of the various Yugoslav republics turned to chauvinist rhetoric in an attempt to divert widespread anger and social misery away from revolutionary channels.

This process underlay the rise of Slobodan Milosevic, the former Stalinist who came to power as the advocate of Serbian nationalism. While the media propaganda in Europe and the United States presented Milosevic as a new Hitler, he was in reality a former favorite of Washington, which backed him because he was a proponent of the capitalist market.

Moreover, while Milosevic engaged in nationalist demagogy, his words and actions were matched by those of the nationalist leaders of the component republics and provinces of Yugoslavia, who also engaged in “ethnic cleansing,” driving Serbian civilians out of areas like Croatia’s Krajina region.

The WSWS explained that the decision by the Clinton administration to bomb Serbia into submission was the product of a major historical shift in international capitalism. The 35,000 sorties by US-NATO warplanes on an impoverished country unmasked the real relations between the major imperialist powers and small nations.

In, “After the Slaughter: Political Lessons of the Balkan War,” published June 14, after Serbia’s surrender, David North noted that a vast historical retrogression was underway: “The dismantling of the old colonial empires during the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s appears more and more, in light of contemporary events, to have been only a temporary episode in the history of imperialism.”

Particularly significant throughout the bombing campaign was the role of various ex-left groups and “human rights” activists in lending support to the incineration of thousands of Serbs. North explained the social roots of this phenomenon, in which a highly privileged layer of the upper middle class had become pro-war:

The social structure and class relations of all the major capitalist countries have been deeply affected by the stock market boom which began in the early 1980s. Perpetually rising share values, especially the explosion in market valuations since 1995, have given a significant section of the middle class—especially among the professional elite—access to a degree of wealth that they could not have imagined at the outset of their careers.

The German Greens, who had entered a coalition government with the Social Democratic Party for the first time, leapt at the opportunity to declare their support for the war, with Joschka Fischer, the party’s leader and former anarchist street fighter, serving as foreign minister in the government and principal cheerleader for the bombing campaign.

Australian imperialism and East Timor

September witnessed the launching of another neo-colonialist operation by the imperialist powers: the Australian-led and US-backed intervention in East Timor.

Following the Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998 and the collapse of the Suharto regime in Indonesia, Washington and Canberra shifted away from their decades-long support for Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor, concluding that their economic and strategic interests would be best served by granting “independence” to the resource-rich territory.

Under pressure from the US and its Australian “deputy sheriff” (as Prime Minister John Howard notoriously styled himself), Suharto’s successor, B.J. Habibie, organised a referendum on August 30. After the Timorese masses voted for independence, the Indonesian military and its proxy militias retaliated by killing hundreds of civilians and displacing hundreds of thousands--thereby providing the major powers with a “humanitarian” pretext to intervene and secure their interests.

In response, the World Socialist Web Site issued a series of statements opposing the imperialist intervention, and the SEP (Australia) organized public meetings exposing the predatory nature of the operation. The WSWS explained that the major powers were seeking control of the oil reserves in the Timor Sea and greater access to the geo-strategically crucial Indonesian archipelago. It also reviewed the historical record of imperialist intrigue in the island, perpetrated by successive US and Australian governments that were complicit in the crimes of the Suharto regime, including Indonesia’s 1975 invasion of East Timor, costing an estimated 200,000 lives.

A critical feature of the WSWS coverage was its exposure of the role played by the petty-bourgeois “left.” A number of these groups organized “troops in” protests calling on the right-wing Howard government to intervene. East Timor was a further stage in the shift to the right among the middle class “left” groups, who openly embraced imperialism under the banner of “human rights.”

On the basis of Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution, the WSWS outlined a socialist perspective for the Timorese and Indonesian populations, exposing the East Timorese nationalist group CNRT, which refused to defend the population against the onslaught of the Indonesian-backed militia. The CNRT leaders instead used the civilian deaths to agitate for an imperialist intervention that would place them in power in a new capitalist statelet, where they would work in behalf of Timorese bourgeois layers and the major imperialist powers.

An Australian checkpoint during the occupation of East Timor
A demonstration in Perth, Australia: the middle class “left” embraced the invasion of East Timor

Other critical political developments

In the course of the year, the WSWS analyzed many other important international developments. These included the culmination of the impeachment crisis in the United States, with the acquittal of Clinton after a trial in the US Senate. (For a fuller assessment of the right-wing campaign to destabilize the Clinton administration, see the review of 1998.)

Clinton’s narrow escape was followed by the Democratic president’s even more slavish adaptation to the demands of Wall Street, including an $800 billion tax cut and bank deregulation legislation that set the stage for the speculative frenzy that culminated in the 2008 financial crash.

The WSWS continuously reported and analyzed the deepening social crisis in the United States, amid incidents of brutality and violence that demonstrated the intensity of the underlying class contradictions. The most notorious was the massacre at Columbine High School in a suburb of Denver, Colorado, which cost the lives of 15 people, most of them high school students. We rejected the claim that this was a “senseless tragedy” that could be understood only as a manifestation of “evil,” and traced the bloodshed to the climate of violence and reaction promoted by the American government and media.

In Europe, the WSWS analyzed the policies of the social democratic governments that had come to power in Britain and Germany. Tony Blair had become prime minister in 1997, and Gerhard Schröder had become chancellor after the Social Democrats won the German federal elections on September 27, 1998, forming a coalition government with the Greens.

After they had come to office due to widespread hostility to incumbent conservative governments, the social democratic governments carried out openly right-wing economic and social policies. The World Socialist Web Site explained the significance of this repudiation of reformism and open embrace of capitalist reaction. It was rooted in the globalization of production, which had shattered the material basis for the program of national regulation and reform, transforming the relationship between the working class and all of its old parties and trade union organizations.

In the Middle East and South Asia, the WSWS examined the crisis of US and Israeli policy in the wake of the death of King Hussein of Jordan, a principal pillar of the imperialist-backed order, and analyzed the politics of the Kurdish separatist PKK after the capture of its leader Abdullah Ocalan.

The major world event in this region was the military coup in Pakistan October 12, which overthrew the elected government of Nawaz Sharif and brought General Pervez Musharraf to power. Articles on the WSWS debunked claims that the military would hold power only temporarily and linked the coup to the demands by the International Monetary Fund for further attacks on working class living standards.

The WSWS reported on important labor struggles, from a strike wave in Korea to the Quebec nurses’ strike in July and a walkout by teachers in Detroit against wage cutting and attacks on public education. 

The site also carried reporting and analysis on the anti-World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, which temporarily paralyzed the city and shocked the assembled leaders of world capitalism. The WSWS condemned the brutal police repression of the protests, while explaining that the nationalist and reformist politics of the anti-globalization movement offered no way forward politically for the international working class. At the same time, we analyzed the objective significance of the failure of the WTO summit itself, which underscored the mounting contradictions of world capitalism.

The WSWS also highlighted a series of campaigns by the Socialist Equality Party in Australia against attacks on basic democratic rights. These included the right-wing Howard government’s refusal to grant a visa to Tamil socialist Rajendiram Sutharsan, who had been invited to attend the party’s summer school. The Australian SEP also mounted a powerful campaign for the defense of victimized Victorian teacher Geraldine Rawson against her dismissal for breaching a draconian confidentiality provision.

The Australian SEP lost its first Aboriginal member, Yabu Bilyana, who died in April 1999 at the age of 54. The WSWS obituary explained that Yabu had become attracted to the Trotskyist movement because of its recognition that “Aborigines were part of the international working class, and that the solution to the terrible conditions they continued to face lay in unifying with their class brothers and sisters of all skin colors, races and nationalities in a common struggle against the profit system.”

Art, science and history

Our international arts coverage greatly expanded in 1999 to include art exhibits, theater, music, film festivals, books and photo exhibits, in addition to film reviews. The WSWS reviews went below the surface, exploring artists’ histories, related current and past political and social conditions, US and international artistic trends.

After the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences decided to give Elia Kazan an honorary award, Arts Editor David Walsh wrote a series of articles denouncing the decision, exploring Kazan’s record as one of the most prominent figures to become an informer during the anticommunist witch-hunts of the 1950s. During his testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Kazan named eight people. Their names were added to the blacklist, severely damaging their lives and careers.

These articles, subsequently published as a pamphlet and widely distributed at the Academy Awards ceremony in March, touched off an important dialogue on the WSWS. Between February and July, the web site published nine articles on the subject, including interviews, plus a series of readers’ letters. Director Abraham Polonsky and screenwriter Walter Bernstein, both blacklisted, and Victor Contreras, a film, television and stage actor, spoke with the WSWS. At the Sydney Film Festival, Richard Phillips interviewed Bertrand Tavernier, screenwriter, director and producer, who also spoke about Kazan’s role.

Besides film reviews, which were now a staple of the Arts Review—The Thin Red Line, Walls Within, Earth, to name a few—there were an obituary appreciation of filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. The year also saw reviews of Philip Roth’s book I Married a Communist, a new biography of jazz musician Louis Armstrong, a volume of the later poems of W. H. Auden, and a theatrical presentation of Alfred Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz

Music was given new prominence, with reviews of folk songs, a boxed set anthology of Bruce Springsteen, and an obituary of Alfredo Kraus, the great Spanish tenor.

Of particular political interest was a display of rare photographs of the Spanish Civil War taken by Robert Capa and exhibited in Madrid.

The WSWS gave attention to important issues in science, with articles on topics ranging from the use of computers to solve complex mathematical problems to the implications of fossil finds for the prehistory of humanity. A lengthy review of the book The End of Science, by John Horgan, was the occasion for a major rebuttal of the attempts by postmodernist philosophy to deny the objective truth of science.

The greater attention to culture and science also found expression in the field of history, with a multi-part interview with noted historian James M. McPherson. This discussion included a comparison of the impeachment crisis of 1998-99 and the political upheaval that preceded the American Civil War.