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1938 Socialist Workers Party Resolution on the Young People’s Socialist League (Fourth Internationalist)

source: Trotskyist Youth Archives –
Documents from the SWP National Committee Plenum, New York, November 19-20, 1938

The social crisis of American capitalism leaves but a few decisive years during which it will be determined whether America will be swept into the fascist abyss or will be the starting point of the world revolution. In the revolutionary struggle against capitalism and fascism, the ability of the Socialist Workers Party to attract the youth is of paramount importance.

While capitalist technology in general has largely removed economic distinctions between adult and young workers, it has not removed social and other distinctions between the adults and youth in general. On the contrary, the social crisis has intensified these differences, which manifest themselves in a new state of declassed youth, demoralized, despairing, desperately seeking a way out of their dilemma. Capitalism seeks to solve this problem in part by regimentation and thus creates the social factors for the development of fascist ideology in the youth. To illustrate from another side: pacifist views at one time had their attraction among working youth and particularly among the students. In the latter-day imperialist epoch and especially since the advent of fascism, sharpened antagonisms between the imperialist nations and with the Soviet Union have enormously increased militarist preparations and militarist outlooks. The youth is literally born into militarism and war; pacifist ideology is largely alien to this period and the needs of youth, the first victims of warfare. In the conditions described, if the revolutionary party and youth organizations are unable to attract the mass of the youth, they will become both the victims and adherents of fascist ideology and organization. Here alone is a major task for the youth organization and party to solve.

The declassed youth are attracted by an organization of combat, cemented by the conflict with its enemies. Such an organization develops an internal cohesiveness, a spirit of comradeship, a brotherhood of arms; that gives it a power of attraction that can never be equaled by opponent organizations that rely mainly on greater material resources. The fascist organizations can attract the youth only in the absence of a fighting, socialist youth organization which offers the youth a program which meets their needs – something which the fascists in any event cannot really solve.

The creation of a special youth organization is made necessary by recognition of the following:

  1. The problems of life and manner of living of the youth create an outlook and psychology that differ from those of the adult.
  2. Capitalism has created special social problems for the youth.
  3. The fact that youth form the bulk of the armed forces of the state gives the youth organization a special role in antimilitarist work.

An organization of socialist youth, approaching the problems and activities of the youth with a socialist, revolutionary understanding, could attract masses of youth, whereas the party could, through a direct political appeal, only win the few class-conscious and intellectually advanced youth.

From this it follows that the youth organization must be an auxiliary of the party, created for a special purpose. It must be politically subordinated to the party, but must retain organizational autonomy within its sphere of work. Since it is the task of the youth organization to educate and through diverse activities prepare the youth for later service in the party, its requirements for membership should be interest in and sympathy with the aims of the organization, and not a requirement of full political understanding of its program. In other words, the youth organization is a broad organization, so functioning as to be able to attract the inexperienced, but ready to learn youth; although it remains narrow in the sense that the youth organization will in no circumstances admit youth consciously opposed to its program. The youth organization must be broad and flexible with the new, untutored, or unlearned youth, but it must not thereby be merely a social and debating society. Education and class-struggle activities to the greatest degree possible are the necessary tasks of the kind of mass youth organization sought for. The discipline in the youth organization should not be merely a discipline imposed from above by the organization, not the more rigid discipline expected of politically matured party members, but must flow especially from the internal spirit of the membership and their common fight for an ideal and goal.

During the past year, however, there has been evidence that in the political struggle against the reformist Socialist Party, in which the youth participated, there developed habits and methods which in varying degree run counter to the Bolshevik views of the youth movement and its relations with the party. In quite large part these views were permitted to persist because of insufficient unity and decisiveness on the part of the youth leadership in dealing with them. As an instance, aggravated by a lull in party activities, especially in the summer period, concepts arose in the youth which might be described as budding youth “vanguardism,” and which naturally gave rise to friction between the party and the youth. These concepts developed also in other localities, with greater or lesser degree. Where the party representatives to the youth committees were either inexperienced in youth problems or failed to function on youth committees, the youth’s antagonism toward the party was not mollified. The debate on the labor party question – a legitimate dispute on a tactical question - gave rise on occasions, in New York and also elsewhere, to antagonisms which were inimical to an organization which ought always to aim for intelligent discussion and decision in debates on party and youth problems. Such an atmosphere gave encouragement to and created in measure artificial hostility in relation to the party and partially vanguardist conceptions of a youth organization. Either false or not properly understood concepts on the role of a youth organization arose more naturally where there also existed a low morale or isolation from the mass of youth in general. Improvement is definitely to be noted in these respects in the recent period.

The party itself shares some of the responsibility for that situation, as a result of which in a measure the party (New York) lost prestige with the youth. Here, too, mutual discussions between the respective party and youth committees have contributed to a better understanding and improvement as to youth relations, but there must yet be much more improvement.

Although it is necessary to establish that the youth organization must participate as actively as possible in the political life of the party, but under the direction of the party, the concept of political subordination of the youth to the party defines and limits these rights. Participation in the political life of the party is an important factor in the education of the youth, but does not imply the assignment to the members of the youth organization who are not also members of the party of the right to make decisions for the party or to participate in making these decisions with equal rights.

While such party-youth conflicts and misunderstanding as have existed resulted in part from false ideas developed during the faction struggle against the Socialist Party leadership, this does not give the whole answer. There existed, and to some extent still exist, notions among the youth to regard the normal role of the youth organization as that of a political party for young workers standing on an equal basis with the SWP, as the party of the adult workers. Where such ideas may still remain in the youth, they must be overcome if party-youth relations are to exist properly and correctly.

Historically, this concept of a “youth party” was the result of decades of experience during which Social Democratic ideology prevented the youth from carrying out its real role – that of a fighting, mass youth movement. Any concept today among the youth which still envisages the role of the YPSL to be that of a “youth party” in the face of an existing revolutionary party – wherein the youth organization emulates the SWP, except that the latter functions among adult workers and the former among young workers and students – must be entirely eliminated.

While the YPSL has made some gains in certain localities, it has, on the whole, only managed to hold its own nationally. But lack of substantial progress in this period of world-shaking events actually means relative stagnation and retrogression. Much evidence of this condition is to be seen. The lack of great progress has had its effect on the morale of the YPSL ranks. The almost entirely political character of the activities and purely theoretical education (the latter, however, lacking in important instances) undertaken by or given to the members has led too much to mere assimilation of book knowledge without the building of a revolutionary character and morality. This finds its result in evidence of cynicism, pseudo-intellectualism, and a blase, smug, smart-aleck attitude. Such an atmosphere, suitable perhaps for bohemians, is alien to a revolutionary youth movement. It retards the willingness and necessity for the organization of its ranks to sacrifice, both in personal effort and financially, in the interests of the organization, and it lays heavy hands upon discipline and organizational efficiency.

It is necessary for the YPSL immediately to make a sharp break with its past bad concepts and habits and methods of work. Sweeping changes both in the character and orientation of the league are required at once. It is necessary to proceed swiftly to transform the YPSL into a fighting mass organization of revolutionary youth.

The adoption by the youth of the program of transitional demands makes it even more imperative that these changes be made. Unless the YPSL transforms itself into a fighting political movement, a youth movement, and a mass movement, it will not be able to rally the working youth to its program.

The fact that the YPSL is a fighting organization, infused with a willingness to struggle and a determination to conquer, must find its expression in all aspects of the movement. First of all, they must be organizationally geared for combat. The YPSL must in effect become a genuine fighting organization.

The colorful appearance of the youth organization must be the outward expression of its fighting spirit. To “dress up” the present organization, without a simultaneous regeneration of idealism, would be incongruous. Uniforms, salutes, banners, emblems, etc., come more naturally to a fighting organization. The resolution of the YPSL National Committee on the role and tasks of the youth points out correctly, however, that it is not necessary to wait until the spirit of the movement changes before changing its appearance. The spirit and the appearance react one upon the other. These external changes should be made at once. The appearance of the YPSL membership in uniform, with banners, with marching, and songs, at the party and youth anniversary celebration of the Fourth Internationalist movement in the United States, at the New York meeting at the Center Hotel, had a noticeable effect on the morale and spirit of the entire audience present, and is a case in point.

Since it is the primary task of the youth organization to train young people for a lifetime of revolutionary service to the party and movement, its major function becomes an educational one. But not, how ever, only in the sense of book learning. It must be educational in the broad sense of building and training young people in knowledge, character, and revolutionary morality. Devotion and the spirit of self-sacrifice, as the expression of idealism and the seriousness and determination of our movement, must be instilled in the youth from the moment he enters the organization. This must result from the patient efforts of the more mature youth comrades and members of the party, who should make themselves the companions and unofficial teachers and guides of the youth.

Since the bulk of the youth members are learning, preparatory to being admitted into the party, only the necessary core of leading members of the youth organization should be permitted to maintain dual membership. Twenty-one years should become the upper age of the youth movement. Application to the party for admittance is mandatory at this age. Dual membership may be maintained for a transitional period not to exceed six months. Leading members of the youth movement may maintain dual membership only with permission of the party in agreement with the youth organization. But members of the youth movement may join the party at the age of eighteen years upward after consultation between the representative party and youth committees.

Admission of members of the youth organization into the party must become an important and formal event. Admittance should be in groups at regular intervals. Party membership, symbolized by the presentation of party cards, should be bestowed upon the “graduates” at membership meetings of the youth organization attended by selected representatives of the party.

The SWP looks with high hopes to the future of the youth organization. We believe it is necessary for the youth to make these changes at its forthcoming convention in Chicago. The YPSL can become a mass organization, sensitive to the problems and needs of the youth, by projecting itself into their struggles; by organizing, leading, and guiding them. In this manner the YPSL can give later to the party its most devoted, capable, and thoroughly trained professional revolutionists.

On our part, we realize well that neither the national party nor the local branches have in the past given the YPSL the attention, guidance, and aid that the youth warrants. But it pledges to remedy its own deficiencies and laxness on its part. It will endeavor to improve understanding and relations with the youth from top to bottom, by exchange of representatives on the respective committees and by greater participation in its work in the form of better and more political guidance and directives and by greater material aid (organizational, finances, etc.) than in the past.


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