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Why Socialists Should Defend Clinton

Martin Sullivan

I DON’T KNOW how socialist organisations in the United States have responded to the Republican campaign to have Bill Clinton impeached, but the far left in Britain seems to me to have generally got it wrong. Judging by articles in the socialist press and conversations with activists, the left is at best neutral on the issue and in some cases finds itself effectively solidarising with the right in its attacks on Clinton.

Clinton’s role as a bourgeois politician – and a particularly slimy and vicious one at that – is of course not in doubt. Having been elected in 1992 on a liberal platform (at least as regards domestic policy), he has since adapted to the Republican right wing all down the line. He has abandoned his promises of economic interventionism, embracing instead the essentials of Reaganite free market ideology, and he has attacked the poor and single mothers in particular, through his Welfare Reform Bill. As for foreign policy, he has blockaded Cuba, maintained sanctions against Iraq, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of children, and in the midst of the Zippergate crisis he launched bombing raids on Afghanistan and Sudan, thus neatly combining the furtherance of US imperialist interests with the rather narrower objective of diverting attention from his personal predicament.

But this doesn’t mean that there is no difference between Clinton and his persecutors. Even if Clinton’s liberal credentials are in tatters, he is no right-wing extremist in the sense that Starr and some of his Republican allies are. Indeed, that is why they want to get rid of him.

This is an elementary point that some on the left have chosen to ignore. The Socialist Workers Party, for example, has taken a plague-on-both-their-houses line which shades over into virtually welcoming the fact that Clinton might be toppled by the Republican right. In the 28 September issue of Socialist Worker, Hazel Croft attacks liberal opinion in the US and Britain for having "backed Bill Clinton against prosecutor Kenneth Starr and his right-wing allies". Even though she accepts that Starr is "a right-wing religious fanatic", Croft seems quite happy for Starr and his fellow fanatics to succeed in their campaign to remove Clinton. She concludes, not that Clinton is the object of a right-wing conspiracy, but that he has been "hoisted by his own hypocrisy" – in short, that he had it coming.

The October issue of Socialist Review takes a similar line. Its US correspondent Sharon Smith lists Clinton’s crimes against humanity and argues that "Clinton should be impeached – not as an adulterer, but as a murderer". But this is just utopian moralising. Short of the US working class taking power – which, unfortunately, would not appear to be imminent – there isn’t the slightest prospect of Clinton being deposed on this basis.

In the real world, the successful impeachment of Clinton would give a considerable boost to those sections of the Republican Party who have allied themselves with Christian fundamentalist extremists. It could open the way to a decisive rightward shift in US politics and assist the most reactionary political elements in their attempts to impose their backward ideas on US society. This, surely, is something that socialists should fiercely oppose.

Does this amount to supporting the Democrats as the "lesser evil" compared with the Republicans? Not at all. But if socialists are to get a hearing from working people who support the Democrats, and win them to the principle of independent working class politics, they will have to critically defend Clinton against Starr’s campaign. It certainly can’t be done by forming a de facto political bloc with a pack of Republican right-wingers and Christian fundamentalist nutters.