|The Early Days of a Better Nation|
Friday, July 17, 2009
Kids these days - heck, anyone under thirty - in Britain, France and a handful of other countries, probably think it's a small but normal part of the gaiety of nations to have Trotskyists running for President, sponsoring big talk-fests of leftwing politicians and trade unionists and public intellectuals, performing stand-up comedy, sitting on the executives of major unions, getting elected to the European Parliament, bringing about the fall of an Italian government, and so on and so forth, all the while upholding the charming old Trotskyist customs of selling newspapers, splitting and fusing and underestimating the peasantry.
It wasn't always like this. In the 1950s and 1960s even the largest Trotskyist organizations (apart from the one in Sri Lanka, which quite uniquely was the mass working-class party in the country, and one in Britain, the Socialist Labour League (SLL), which had about a thousand) had memberships in the hundreds, and the rest had tens at most. So the past few decades could be counted a success - 'the resurgence of the political formations associated with [Trotsky's] name', as a New Left Books back cover once pompously put it.
The man most responsible for that success, small as it was, being a lot smaller than it could have been was Gerry Healy, the very man who had built the SLL. Remarking on Healy's death in December 1989, the anarchist Nicolas Walter said to me that Healy was the most evil person ever to come out of the Marxist movement. What about Ceausescu (then in the news), I asked? I don't recall Walter's reply, by I do remember the impatient look and gesture that accompanied it. Britain's best-known anarchist wasn't given to cutting actual Communist tyrants any slack, but my guess is that he thought Ceausescu's character was better than Healy's. If so, he may have had a point. Say what you like about Ceausescu, he railed at his accusers, stood by his Elena, and died like a man.
Wohlforth, it's fair to say, doesn't use his memoir to shine a flattering light on himself. He adds little to the exposure of Healy, of whom enough and more than enough has been said. As early as 1959, one of Healy's biggest catches - Peter Fryer, the Daily Worker journalist who'd covered the Hungarian uprising of 1956, found his reports spiked or distorted, and broken with the Communist Party as a result - gave a disturbing account of Healy's violence, lying and paranoia. Unfortunately it took another quarter of a century before the whole farrago imploded.
No, what's actually disillusioning is seeing the relatively decent characters in this long-running farce - Max Shachtman, Hal Draper, Joseph Hansen, George Novack, even James P. Cannon (once described as 'a Healy who never found his Gadaffi') not to mention Wohlforth and his comrades and rivals, from James Robertson to Lyndon Larouche portrayed as little more than assiduous writers of internal documents that tried and failed to interpret a world being changed by others.
A perennial problem of Trotskyism has been trying to understand the post-WW2 social revolutions within the framework of Trotskyist theory. If you actually look at what actually happened, whether it's Czechoslovakia or Cuba or South Yemen, it's not at all hard to understand what was going on. Understanding it and making your understanding compatible with Trotskyist theory is an exercise in futility, like squaring the circle or getting a dent out of a ping-pong ball. I once made the effort, ploughing through: a whole load of the American SWP's and the Fourth International's internal documents reprinted decades later as 'Education for Socialists' bulletins; one of Wohlforth's tyro attempts; and a later document, 'The Theory of Structural Assimilation', which he authored on realising the first one didn't work. How depressing to see how Wohlforth himself had set about the task:
'That winter I took a suitcase full of old documents to a Miami Beach kosher hotel.' (p113)
It would be churlish to begrudge Wohlforth his second career.