Book Review - The Prophets Children

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1997, Volume 14, Number 2, pages 316-320. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Book Review -The Prophet's Children: Travels on the American Left. 

Tim Wohlforth. Humanities Press, Atlantic Highlands, NJ, 1994, 332 pages.

Groups that make extensive use of unethical influencing techniques proliferate on both the extreme left and right of politics. Yet, relatively little has been published that explores the world of political cults, and examines both what they have in common with more mainstream groups and what sets them apart. A partial exception is this enormously readable book by Tim Wohlforth. His book explicitly addresses political cultism only in passing; nonetheless, it is an important contribution to debate among political activists concerned with the need for political action on the one hand (democratic life would be impossible without such a commitment from many people), and the need to avoid the fanaticism and factionalism of groups such as those described in this book.

Wohlforth is a well-known figure in socialist politics. He became involved in the Trotskyist movement in the United States as a young man in the 1950s, and remained active, usually at a senior level, in one group or another until the 1980s. At one point, he led his own group, the Workers League, which was associated internationally with one of the most interesting characters in this book-Gerry Healy, leader of the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP) in Britain. The group counted among its members such luminaries as Vanessa Redgrave, and the group had ambitions more than equal to its high media profile.

The book's fide is derived from Isaac Deutscher's masterful biography of Leon Trotsky, co-leader of the 1917 Russian Revolution, which canonized the foremost opponent of Stalin as a prophet, eventually outcast from the Communist movement and, in the ultimate act of political censorship, murdered in 1940 by a Stalinist agent in Mexico. As Wohlforth makes clear, this martyrdom helped Trotskyist groups acquire a moral authority as democratic opponents of totalitarianism, an authority which grew after the Hungarian Revolution was suppressed by Russian tanks in 1956 and traditional Stalinism began its unwilling slide toward the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Nevertheless, as shown in this book, Trotskyist groups have by and large reproduced within their ranks the same authoritarianism they criticized so well in Stalinism. Although the book is laced with humor (oddball groups seem to attract some wonderfully eccentric characters), this wider paradox means that the predominant tone is one of tragedy and loss.

This book is a fascinating record of life on the far left during the McCarthy period, the trauma and exhilaration of the an6-Vietnam War protests, and the conservative era which set in during the mid-1970s. Throughout that period no shortage of minuscule grouplets became convinced that they, and they alone, had the definitive answer to society's problems. (Monty Python's Life of Brian springs to mind!) To adapt an old political joke from Ireland, it would indeed appear that whenever members of a new Trotskyist grouping meet, the first item on the agenda is "the split." Wohlforth's book shows that despite their enmity, these groups all subscribed to two central notions which ultimately condemned them to shout in a common wilderness.

The first is the expectation of imminent economic catastrophe, which it is assumed will result in a particular form of radicalization which only the Trotskyist groups can anticipate, understand, and lead. Other writers have termed this "catastrophism," and such views, in one form or another, are common to many cultic groups. Clearly, an immediate (convenient) effect is to create enormous commitment on the part of the members, expressed in demonic levels of activity. Wohlforth describes this in terms that will be familiar to anyone involved in cult-watching:

We followed up each successful campaign with a new and more ambitious one. Comrades pushed harder, draining their bank accounts and their energies. We were all so proud of our achievements. But each of us was burning fuel that could not be replenished. Some- where way in the back of our minds we said to our- selves: "I can do this just a little while longer. Just one more campaign. Soon our dream will come true, very soon because I can't go on this way forever. This is for the duration, but the duration cannot last too much longer. "

The second belief each competing group held in common was that a revolutionary party in its own image was essential to create a new society. This fed illusions of indispensability and infallible insight. Dissent was seen as imperilling the future of humanity, while dissenters were little better than conscious agents of capitalism and imperialism. Wohlforth's book brings this poisonous process vividly to life. A number of gurus strut across the pages, each convinced that he possessed a uniquely powerful vision for society and that mass parties capable of realizing this vision could be constructed-if only the disciples would turn over their time, their money, and their minds to the guru, and, inciden- tally, work harder.

And yet the recurrent perspective of calamity followed by redemption through each group's own triumph was constantly disappointed by events. How did they cope with this? One major response was a denial that "the objective situation" was so unfavorable. Healy, in particular, simply kept reiterating that catastrophe was imminent, or already happening. This meant that the only explanation for failure was the personal inadequacy of the group members ("the subjective factor"). The problem could never be the underlying ideology of the group itself! As a result, there were intensive self-criticism sessions-a major device of social control. Wohlforth gives many examples of this, particularly in the WRP. Healy frequently reduced leading members to tears at central committee meetings, organized gatherings of members during which some miscreant would be pilloried in turn by everyone present, and, on occasion, resorted to physical force. The effect was that

comrades were kept inwardly turned, separated from each other, concentrating on their own purported weaknesses and thus blind to those of the leadership. Those comrades who could not adapt to Healy's methods found themselves forced out of the party individually before they could organize an opposition. Should a comrade wish to form an opposition, he would soon find out that he had already confessed to sufficient “crimes" to give Healy the ammunition he needed to isolate the person.

One victim, in particular, was a woman who worked for many years as Healy's personal assistant, while also servicing his sexual needs (in common, it later emerged, with scores of others). At one point she suffered a spinal injury, when Healy smashed a chair over her back. In at least one demonstration of justice, it was her decision to publicize such incidents that led to Healy's downfall. She brought his conduct to the attention of party members, Healy was expelled, and the organization exploded into competing fragments. It helped that it was in crisis already: Healy was a particularly rabid exponent of catastrophism, and decades of failed predictions had by 1985 tested the faith of even his closest acolytes to breaking point.

None of this suggests, of course, that a radical critique of society is by itself unjustified, or doomed to end up in bizarre cult formations. It does suggest that socialists need to rethink key elements of the Leninist/ Trotskyist tradition rather than seek to reproduce the Bolshevik experience in the next millennium. Wohlforth begins an interesting discussion of such issues in the closing pages of his book: it is to be hoped that he will return to them in more depth, and be joined in such a reappraisal by others influenced by the Marxist tradition.

This book provokes strong emotions. In the first place, I felt much grief and anger. The abuses chronicled reveal a betrayal of people's desire for a better world. Radical politics has attracted many intelligent, idealistic, and self-sacrificing people - Wohlforth included - and they inhabit these pages to a far greater extent than such grotesques as Gerry Healy. Their contribution is needed. Yet his book shows that their idealism has often been abused, and just as often side-tracked down the road of mind-numbing and, therefore, wasted activism. Cults maintain their hold partly because we assume that noble ends guarantee noble means-that is, if an organization holds out an objective that we find morally worthwhile, acceptable, attractive, and noble, we tend to assume that the organization will also use morally upright means to achieve its ends. Then, when disturbing contradictions are paraded in front of us, we become reluctant to acknowledge the evidence of our own senses. Books such as this will make the task of facing reality much easier. Tim Wohlforth has produced a compelling narrative for cult watchers interested in this area, and one which those who have been through any form of radical politics will find particularly fascinating. It is highly recommended.

Dennis Tourish, Ph.D.

School of Behavioural and Communication Sciences University of Ulster, Northern Ireland 

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol 14, No. 2, 1997