Jim Higgins

The Prophet’s Children

(Winter 1995/96)

From Revolutionary History, Vol. 6 No. 1, Winter 1995/96, p. 197 200.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Tim Wohlforth
The Prophet’s Children: Travels on the American Left
Humanities Press, New Jersey, 1995, pp. 332

ACCORDING TO Robert Louis Stevenson: “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour.” Whatever universal validity this particular aphorism may possess, it is the one that immediately sprang to mind when I read this account of Tim Wohlforth’s travels through the wide Sargasso Sea of Trotskyism. He travelled far and he laboured mightily, and nobody could have had higher hopes for the marbled splendour of the destination, until finally, after 30 years, he arrived at the low-rise squalor of reformism. Such a well-trodden path, such an irritating inevitability.

In 1953 Tim Wohlforth joined the Independent Socialist League, purveyors of the theory of bureaucratic collectivism – originated by Bruno Rizzi, codified by Joe Carter, modified by James Burnham, brought to full fruition by Max Shachtman, and most recently adopted by Sean Matgamna. For sure, the ISL was one of the better choices for a young comrade to make. It had a relaxed internal regime and a number of very talented and intelligent members, all with a profound knowledge of the movement. Unfortunately, by 1953 Shachtman was beginning the process of dumping the organisation into the soft, soggy lap of the American Socialist Party. In 1958, having signed a humiliating document which denied all connection with Lenin or revolutionary Socialism, Shachtman was allowed to take his depleted forces into the Socialist Party/Social Democratic Federation. As it happens, the SP/SDF was in an even more dilapidated condition than the ISL, and within not too long the Shachtmanites were in control, not, as you might imagine, to turn it to the left, but further to the right, aligning it even more firmly with the Democratic Party.

By 1957 Tim Wohlforth, together with his co-factionalists Jim Robertson, later to take the Kirk Douglas rôle in the Spartacist League, and Shane Mage, who subsequently became a follower of Timothy Leary dedicated to the proposition that the opium of the masses was alright so long as it came from the Golden Triangle, could see the writing on the wall. In great big letters, it said: This lot are moving to the right, better join the Socialist Workers Party. So they did.

The SWP was not averse to having them, because they had some recent experience of youth work, whereas the party cadre’s most recent brush with youth had been the Young Communist League in 1928. Tim makes no reference to the fact that the SWP thought bureaucratic collectivism was a reactionary theory, and adhered to the classical Trotskyist workers’ state thesis. It seems he passed from one theory to the other without breaking step. From his account the difference between the two organisations was that the ISL’s headquarters was pretty scruffy, whilst the SWP’s was pretty smart. It may be that this is a factor left out of account by us revolutionaries in our recruitment policy. Perhaps we should draw them in with the subtle texture and colouring of our soft furnishings, or slip them a membership card as they enthuse over the plush opulence of our uncut moquette. It might just work, and, for what it’s worth, I give it free to Tony Cliff, as by now he must have tried every other stratagem. Life in the SWP was dull, routine stuff. The leadership at most levels were the people from the 1930s. These were Socialists who had forgotten Lenin’s terrible warning that the worst crime a Communist could commit was to be over 50. Some, like James P. Cannon, seemed set to commit the same crime twice over. If life is dull, of course, you can always juice it up a bit by forming a faction. Sam Marcy, at about that time, showed the way. His group took the view that the Hungarian Revolution was Fascist, and that the SWP should seek an orientation to the ultra-Stalinist, Foster wing of the US Communist Party. Wohlforth was, reasonably one might think, not impressed either with the policy or the man: “... in the centre of the mass was a little animated man talking non-stop ... he had a high-pitched voice and I thought he spoke in a completely hysterical manner. Yet I noticed that the Marcyites were enthralled by his performance ... and responded to him en masse. It was my first experience with true political cult followers.” Given that Wohlforth spent the next best years of his life in thrall to that true political cult leader Gerry Healy, it is a pity that he did not pay more attention to the awful example of Sam Marcy. It would have saved him a great deal of pain.

The critical time came when the SWP fell in love with Fidel Castro. Cannon and his ageing cadre so wanted a revolution they could support, that they were prepared to shut their eyes to the leading rôle played by the Stalinists in Cuba, and to the suppression of the Cuban Trotskyists. Here, without doubt, was their “workers’ state”. Tim Wohlforth disagreed. For reasons not unassociated with the fact that the SWP was becoming close to the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, the carrier of the dreaded bacillus of Pabloism, Gerry Healy also disagreed with them about the progressive nature of Castro. Wohlforth had a backer, and the SWP had a new faction fight. For a short time Healy could not make up his mind between the two contenders for his favour, Robertson and Wohlforth. Robertson, however, was foolhardy enough to suppose that he was permitted to fight back when attacked, and was quickly consigned to the outer darkness (from which vantage point he sends out his followers from time to time to make everyone else’s life bloody miserable). Wohlforth was awarded Healy’s North American franchise.

One might have thought that the separation enforced by the Atlantic would mitigate the worst effects of the Healy regime. Not a bit of it, the Workers’ League was to become a Socialist Labour League clone forged in the furnace heat of Healy’s random and splenetic rage. Everything and everybody was to be worked and exploited to the limit of endurance and beyond. Party life was an endless round of paper sales and fund-raising, with recrimination and fault finding the punctuating light relief. Wohlforth was summoned to Clapham High Street on Gerry’s whim, charged with gross dereliction of duty, given just enough time to confess, and then stuffed on the plane back to the States. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s a rich full life, it isn’t.

Inevitably, ritual abuse in Clapham was not enough. The humiliation needed an appropriate audience. The opportunity presented itself at a Workers League camp in Canada. Healy arrived, and in short order he was accusing Wohlforth’s partner, Nancy, of being a CIA agent. A vote to dismiss Wohlforth as Secretary and to expel Nancy was carried, Nancy and Tim both voting for. How pathetic can you get? The last hurrah was a brief return to the SWP to discover that under Jack Barnes the party was even more besotted with Cuba than before. He spent time in Mexico and visited Coyoacan, and he went to Cuba, but his heart was no longer in it. Nowadays, apparently, he agrees politically with Robin Blick. Oh well, as the old song says: “You can tell a man that boozes by the company he chooses, whereat the pig got up and slowly walked away.”

The Prophet’s Children is a strange book. At the end of it one does not understand why Tim Wohlforth did what he did. He was, it seems, motivated by goodwill to others, he was hardworking and unselfish, and prepared for sacrifice. But why he made those sacrifices is unclear. He thought Shachtman was a great man, and also James P. Cannon. To be fair, they certainly stood out in a field full of the vertically challenged, but to confer similar status on Healy shows a lack of judgement that sets you firmly amongst those who cannot tell Stork from butter. Still, Wohlforth has an endearing foible of larding his tale with little vignettes from everyday life. He visited a female comrade, Deborah, who worked in the party office, but was off sick. She was, it appears, not sick, just in love with him. Before you can say knife: “... we kissed passionately and started to undress each other. We staggered to her bed and were soon making passionate sweaty love.” Afterwards, Tim gets up, gets dressed, and is about to leave when the phone rings. Deborah answers the phone. “Hello, Trina”, she says, “I just fucked the Great Pumpkin.” Tim does not say so, but I think it must have been Halloween. What other explanation can there be?

Last updated on 28.9.2011