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Review of Tim Wohlforth’s The Prophet’s Children

Tim Wohlforth, The Prophet’s Children, Humanities Press, 1994. Paperback, 332pp, £14.95.

Reviewed by Harry Ratner

From New Interventions, Vol.7 No.1, 1996

ISAAC DEUTSCHER titled the three volumes of his biography of Leon Trotsky The Prophet Armed, The Prophet Unarmed and The Prophet Outcast. Tim Wohlforth calls his autobiographical account of his activities and those of his comrades in the Trotskyist movement in the United States The Prophet’s Children. It is an apt title. While the international Trotskyist movement was more than just the creation of one man, Trotsky was undoubtedly its main inspirer and theoretician, and those that carried on the movement after his assassination at the hands of Stalin’s henchmen did so leaning heavily on his theoretical concepts and analyses. Those claiming to carry on the Trotskyist tradition split into many violently quarrelling sects each claiming to carry on his intentions better than the others and quoting his utterences while alive in justification of their particular policies – just like a family of quarrelling children fighting over the interpretation of their father’s last will and testament and each claiming to be his true heirs. Tim Wohlforth was one of the prophet’s children.

This may sound cynical and patronising. But it is not meant to be. I, too, was one of the prophet’s children and travelled the same road as Tim Wohlforth and shared some of his experiences, particularly as regards his contact with Gerry Healy. His vivid account of how Healy sought to destroy him politically and how Healy abused and exploited many comrades’ loyalty and dedication rings absolutely true to those of us who were in the movement.

But there was more to the movement than its negative aspects, the constant splits and factional fights, the dogmatism and intolerance. As Wohlforth’s book makes clear, those who participated in the movement were motivated in most cases by the highest ideals, the desire to dedicate their lives to the struggle for a better society. Wohlforth, while a student, joined Shachtman’s Independent Socialist League and its youth section the Young Socialist League in 1953 "at the height of McCarthyism and at the lowest ebb that the American socialist movement had ever experienced". This was the period of the great witch-hunt, when anyone with any hint of a radical past or critical attitude was labelled "a commie", hounded out of jobs and kept under constant surveillance by the FBI. Any one who joined a left wing organisation and committed themselves to political activity could say goodbye to the hopes of a career, and faced victimisation.

Wohlforth and many of his white middle class comrades identified with the struggles of the most oppressed sections of American society, the Negroes and the Hispanics in the ghettos of New York and other cities. One of the most interesting sections of his book is the account of the work of the Workers League and their concentration on community work among the youths in the ghettos:

"Some 350 youth attended the Founding Conference of the Young Socialists [the youth section of the Workers League] in the spring of 1973. Eight of the sixteen youths elected to the National Committee were black or Puerto Rican. Our largest youth conference was held in New York City in May 1974 ... it had an attendance of 550 youth. The YS, at its height, had a membership that fluctuated between 500 and 700."

Wohlforth claims: "With the possible exception of the Communist Party, I do not believe any socialist group ever built a youth movement of our size with such an overwhelmingly minority composition."

By this time, the seventies, Wohlforth had already twenty years of political activity behind him. Although his first adherence was to the Independent Socialist League, Wohlforth broke with Shachtman and the ISL when they moved to the right to merge with the Socialist Party. Wohlforth and a minority broke with Shachtman and eventually joined the orthodox Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party of J.P. Cannon and Farrell Dobbs. However, dismayed by their uncritical support of Castro in Cuba and their rapprochement with the "Pabloites" in the Fourth International and what he considered their accommodation to Stalinism, Wohlforth and a minority in the SWP soon found themselves in a factional alliance with Healy’s group in Britain and Lambert’s Parti Communiste Intemationaliste in France, who had split from the Pabloite International to form the International Committee for the Fourth International. Expelled from the SWP in 1964, Wohlforth and his comrades, all nine of them, called themselves the American Committee for the Fourth International but later changed their name to the Workers League and affiliated it to Healy’s ICFI. From all accounts they threw themselves into a round of hectic activity and the original nine eventually grew to over 200 by 1970 with, as mentioned above, a youth organisation of 500-700, and by 1973 they claimed a circulation of 20,000 for their Bulletin. For such a small organisation this implies a tremendous commitment of 24-hour, seven-day activity.

This hyperactivity mirrored the situation in the British and French sections of the Healy-Lambert International as many comrades in Britain can testify. Combined with the conviction that the final revolutionary crisis of capitalism was imminent and that only our little groups could provide the necessary leadership to the working class it meant that we were working against time. Meanwhile, in the real world outside, the workers we were trying to reach had been depoliticised by the long post-war boom and ignored our existence.

Wohlforth writes: "As time went by our views clashed increasingly with comrades’ experiences in the real world. How did we explain this to the members? Since the ever-deepening crisis was taken as given, we did not see the problems of our organization as objectively based. We could not simply recognize that we were having difficulties because the times were not quite as grim as we painted them.... We thought our problems were subjectively rooted. We believed that the crisis had gotten so deep that the middle classes (for Marxists, the ’petty bourgeoisie’) were in retreat. Therefore our own cadres, which were of middle-class origins, were resisting reaching out to the young workers, whom the ever-deepening crisis was radicalizing.... We were thus seeing a ’class struggle’ within the Workers League as the majority fought the middle-class element’s resistance to reaching out to the ever more receptive workers. As we increased the pace of our activities, we stepped up the internal struggle within the organization. Each branch meeting was dominated by attacks against comrades who failed to sell sufficient tickets to an event or sell papers, or who failed in some other fashion. The comrades were forced to confess their own middle-class weaknesses, even their purported hostility to the working class and to the party. A physically exhausted membership found itself under continuous attack. Believing in the party and our ideals as we all did, each of us became preoccupied with our own internal demons. These kept most of us, at least for a while, from questioning the party’s perspectives. It was, as I can now see clearly, a highly effective method of brainwashing and thought control. We held on to and inspired a hard working membership at the cost of becoming – a political cult!"

It is also clear from Wohlforth’s account that the unwholesome domination that Healy exercised over the Socialist Labour League and then the Workers Revolutionary Party was extended – even over the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean – into the Workers League. Given the situation described above it is easy to see how this came about. Apparently Wohlforth stood in awe of Healy and allowed himself to be bullied into pushing Healy’s policies and methods inside the Workers League against his own better judgement with the results mentioned above as well as antagonising the membership.

The most poignant part of Tim Wohlforth’s book is the description of how, having badgered Wohlforth to create this tension inside the Workers League, Healy descended without warning on a Workers League summer camp, started a whispering campaign to turn the membership against Wohlforth and proceeded to drum Wohlforth out of the organization using an unsubstantiated allegation that his companion Nancy Fields had "CIA connections". Wohlforth was only one of the many people whose loyalty and dedication Healy abused.

After his expulsion from the Workers League, Wohlforth rejoined the SWP for a short time and then moved to Mexico where he associated himself with the PRT (Partido Revolutionario Trajabadora). He is silent on any ties with organizations after that. Some idea of his present thinking can be gleaned from the last pages of The Prophet’s Children. He asks: "What in the Trotskyist political tradition should be abandoned and what is worth preserving?" He argues that one very fundamental aspect of Trotskyism – its Leninism and particularly the substitutionist side of Leninism; the notion that a vanguard party could represent the real interests of the masses even when these masses had no way to check the conduct of these self-appointed leaders – should be questioned. The aspects that should be preserved, according to Wohlforth are: "the notion that democracy and socialism are inseparable"; "the Marxist analysis of ’Marxist’ society" (by which he means the analysis of Stalinism); "a socialist alternative to the centrally planned command economy". Wohlforth says: "Socialism can have a new relevancy to the extent that it is able to project a feasible alternative to bureaucratic Stalinism and capitalism. Trotsky’s ideas (as well as those of Bukharin) on developing a planned economy containing market mechanisms can be useful." Wohlforth also maintains that workers come to feel their own strength in actual struggle for demands and thus come to understand the need to change the nature of the system. This he calls "the transitional method" and cites as two examples of the Trotskyists effectively applying this method the Minneapolis Teamsters Union struggles in the 1930s and the anti-Vietnam War movement in the 1960s.

It is impossible without making this review too long to comment on other aspects of the book, the activities of the SWP, the Black struggles against racism, the student struggles against the Vietnam war, the Trotskyist work in the unions, the question of fighting for a Labor Party, etc.

One may disagree with Wohlforth’s analyses on many points. He himself is quite honest about his mistakes and weaknesses. But it is a useful contribution to the history of the Trotskyist movement in the States and internationally.