Review: The Prophets’ Children: Travels on the American Left, by Tim Wohlforth

I first came across Tim Wohlforth probably around half a century ago. A couple of members of his group stood outside the gates of my high school in Queens, New York. They were chatting with students about how to change the world. I remember only two things about them: First, their group was called the ‘Workers’ League’ which made no sense to me as we were clearly not workers. And second, their message to us was that you may call yourself a radical or a socialist (as we did), but you’re not really one unless you join a group. They convinced me — but the group I joined was not theirs.

This memoir tells the extraordinary story of Tim Wohlforth’s journey from 1953 up until after the fall of the Berlin Wall, as he moved through a number of revolutionary socialist organisations in the USA. At first he was recruited to Max Shachtman’s Independent Socialist League, a dissident Trotskyist faction then on a long trajectory toward social democracy. He then joined the group that Shachtman had split from in 1940, the Socialist Workers Party, and from there he split as well, eventually winding up as the head of a tiny Trotskyist faction eventually known as the Workers’ League. He became a follower of the notorious Gerry Healy, who turned his Trotskyist grouplet in Britain into a totalitarian cult. Eventually Healy turned on Wohlforth, who was sent into political exile, returning for a time to the SWP.

This is a thoughtful and very well-written book, as Wohlforth looks back critically at decisions he made. In the end, he decides that the Trotskyist movement’s embrace of Leninism was a kind of original sin and seems to have begun moving toward social democracy himself — the very thing that led him to abandon his first political home back in the 1950s. By the time he died in 2019, Wohlforth had joined the Democratic Socialists of America, the successor organisation to the Socialist Party.