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Fourth International, September 1943


David Jeffries

The Stalinist Youth Movement Today


From Fourth International, vol.4 No.9, September 1943, pp.279-282.
Transcribed, marked up & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for ETOL.


EDITOR’S NOTE: The author of this article was until recently Secretary of one of the largest Young Communist League branches and chairman of one of its principal university groups. He is now a member of the Socialist Workers Party.

* * * *

The National Council of the Young Communist League announced this June that the YCL was to be reorganized and transformed into a “broader, non-Communist, anti-fascist youth organization” by special convention called for October. The name and program of the League are to be changed, untainted by any remaining hint of “communism.”

This organizational recognition of an existing situation is an appropriate occasion to analyze the question: What is the current anatomy of the YCL, and how firmly are its members bound to Stalinism and its open, flagrant betrayal of the working class? Only on the basis of a correct analysis can we pursue a policy that will win over a section of its membership – now about 20,000 – to the Trotskyist program.

It should be clearly understood that this is an analysis is only of the YCL and not of the Communist Party. Although there will undoubtedly be similarities in any analysis of the two, there are certain important differences that make it impossible to equate the two organizations. The Communist Party, unlike the YCL, has its base in the labor movement, where it does a great deal of its work, and consequently its members are subject to direct pressure from the working class. Likewise, it is slightly stricter than the YCL in its organizational measures, such as requirements for membership, etc., and thus tends to have a larger percentage of active members. Finally, the great majority in the Communist Party has been in the movement longer than most YCLers, and this greater experience naturally carries with it many implications of differences between the ranks of the youth and those of the parent organization.

Like the Communist Party, the YCL is not a homogeneous group, The superficial cloak of unanimity covers deep differences in political development, orientation and opinion. The task of the Stalinist leaders is to marshal all these difference from right to left, behind the current Stalinist line, and in order to accomplish this it is necessary to give different sets of reasons for the line to the different political groupings. The result is an organization officially united upon the leading questions, but in which the individual members retain disagreements (some semi-conscious, and almost all unexpressed) with one aspect or another of the total Stalinist platform, past and present.

There is one great contradiction in the field of education during a right zig-zag period. If it fails to give its membership any semblance of an education in the principles of socialism, it runs the risk of losing almost all of these uneducated members in the event of a new “left” turn. The League membership dropped fifty per cent in the three months following the Stalin-Hitler pact, falling from 24,000 to 12,000. In addition, and perhaps even more important, loyalty and self-sacrifice come only from those members who have socialist ideals. On the other hand, if the League does give its membership an education in some of the basic principles of socialism, the contradiction between these principles and the present Stalinist line would be inescapably glaring and would doubtless lead to many questions and doubts about the correctness of the line. This contradiction is resolved as political necessity dictates today: basic education is largely ignored.

The result is what might be expected; about fifty per cent of its present membership is ignorant of any inkling of Marxist ideas. This percentage is increasing, since the only requirement for admission to the League for over a year has been a desire “to win the war.” The scheduled change in name and program will only recognize and intensify this existing trend. It can surely be predicted that in the event of a new “left” turn the loss in members will be terrific, since there will be no preparation for this at all.

In studying the membership of the YCL it is necessary to divide it into three distinct groups: the completely uneducated members; the semi-educated youth; and politically advanced members. The groups, of course, are not actually so clearly defined as they will appear to be here, but by and large it can be said that the YCL member falls into one of these three categories.

1. The Uneducated “Members”

About fifty per cent of the present League is almost completely politically illiterate. This tremendous body of uneducated youth, about evenly divided between petty-bourgeois and working-class elements, has come in during the last two years, since the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. They have been marshaled into the League ninety-five per cent on the basis of simply supporting the war, and many of them have joined without even this political motivation. Writing in an issue of the Weekly Review, former YCL organ, during the past winter, the Buffalo organizer of the League recounted with considerable pride how some half-dozen youth had been cajoled into joining the League at a social affair on the basis of doing a favor for a YCL friend of theirs who was going into the army! Evidently some “sectarians” in Buffalo had objected to this procedure, for the organizer devoted the next couple of paragraphs to explaining why this was a perfectly correct procedure, in line with “everything to win the war.”

These youth, recruited on a patriotic and social-life basis, remain largely unabsorbed into the League. The YCL affairs that get the largest turn-outs are always the dances, not the meetings.

Negro youth are attracted by its social life and Negro-white equality; at a big YCL dance in Philadelphia recently, 70 per cent of a crowd of 1,500 were Negroes, far out of proportion to their membership. In contrast to this, the attendance of Negroes at branch meetings is very low, despite the speed with which those Negroes who do become active are pushed forward into leadership. Negroes are of course little attracted by the pro-war line; yet recruiting goes on among them on the basis of local discrimination issues.

The great bulk of the group of members we are discussing do not even attend the social affairs, and their faces are not seen at the branch headquarters from one end of a month to the other. They are inactive, disinterested, and make no response to the frequent letters and postcards they get announcing meetings, dances, etc. Dues payments seldom exceed fifty per cent, even in the best of branches, and in some branches they consistently run as low as ten and twenty per cent. After a certain time (usually the registration of membership at the end of the year) all back dues are cancelled. The branch membership lists are cluttered with the names and addresses of people whom nobody knows or has heard of. The greatest task of all branch leaders is attempting to get these members into activity, but it is a well-nigh hopeless task, since in many branches the inactives outnumber the actives five and ten to one.

In other words, the great majority of this bottom stratum of the YCL is not only politically uneducated but organizationally inactive. These inactive “members” not only surely will drop out in the case of some new turn, but are continually leaving, if their previous organizational status justifies the term. When a “member” has not been heard of for months, when he cannot be located, or when he bluntly tells his pursuers that he does not wish to belong to the YCL (not that he wishes to resign – merely that he doesn’t want to “belong”) – when this occurs he is finally liable to be stricken from the branch lists at the next registration.

However, a small number of these politically uneducated elements do enter into a certain amount of political activity. These include those who come to dances, occasionally attend meetings, and a few who even take part in committee work. These members are usually enthusiastic about winning the war, but they have the least knowledge of the history of Stalinism, and since they have little or no knowledge of socialist class-struggle principles, they are less prepared than the more developed members to justify the CP zig-zags. The main line of present-day Stalinist propaganda in literature and the press is directed at this element among the members and sympathizers. A “Marxist” analysis of the situation is given for the benefit of the revolutionary elements immediately following a new turn; they are then allowed to shift for themselves and all guns are concentrated upon influencing the more backward elements by means of anti-Marxist appeals to their conservative ideas and prejudices. The Stalinists seldom mention their policies of preceding periods, and when they do, patently false versions are presented. (In “Victory and After” Browder claims that the Communist Party was opposed to the United States entering the war before June 1941 because it couldn’t possibly have won with the Soviet Union neutral!)

These members are the most easily disillusioned with Stalinist zig-zags and at the same time the least hostile to the Trotskyists, since they know the least about their supposed crimes (Mission to Moscow may have changed this a little). However, they present a difficult task to win over to the Marxist movement because of their political backwardness. They possess most of the disadvantages that a Stalinist has over the average youth (allegiance to Stalinism, devotion to winning the war, etc.) and only one of the advantages, political consciousness.

2. The Semi-Educated Members

The second stratum of the YCL, composing about forty per cent of the membership and most of the actives, is the group with a certain amount of education in socialism and an active interest in politics. This stratum is composed of two distinct strains: one consisting of new members who have been active enough to receive a certain amount of political education, and the other of older members who have been with the League through several years, but for one reason or another remain semi-active or inactive today.

It is worthwhile devoting considerable attention to the new members in this group, since they are rapidly becoming the base of the YCL. With the old leaders of the League going into the army or graduating into the CP, this group will soon dominate the branch leadership completely. It is being specifically groomed by the leadership for this purpose.

Those new members who show a willingness to become active are pushed forward as fast as they are willing to go. Most of the new members are active to the extent of participating in committee work and attending meetings and classes. They pick up most of their education at these meetings and classes since the Daily Worker is read even less in the YCL than it is in the Party.

The average YCL meeting agenda is usually built around an educational lecture of some political importance, but there is often so much folderol surrounding the speech that its effect is lost. Skits and “radio” programs, quiz contests and patriotic singing (Over There, The Caissons Keep Rolling, etc.) litter almost every agenda. It is in this atmosphere that the new member acquires his political education. The educational speech, usually delivered by a branch or district functionary, hews strictly to the line of current topics, shallowly’ and empirically interpreted. Such topics as the Anti-Poll Tax Bill, the Congressional “defeatists,” the Second Front (a hardy perennial) and “Production for Victory” are the usual political meat. The speaker will usually go into a few more of the subtleties of a problem than do the normal Daily Worker stories, for he is directly facing an audience and he must draw a reasonably well rounded picture for them. However, fundamentally the “analysis” produces the same result as the usual article: a totally false line-up of forces is impressed upon the listener. Roosevelt is equated to Stalin, Lewis is in the same camp as Coughlin, and that is that!

In addition to absorbing these educational, the average YCLer in this group will probably read Browder’s Victory and After (the present Bible of the movement, now printed in a ten-cent edition), he will read some current pamphlets sold at meetings(usually as shallow as the Daily Worker), and may attend a branch class. These classes, attended by from five to twenty people, take up only “problems of the war,” but they are sometimes productive of a serious discussion. For example, the leader of a discussion on The Nature of Fascism will usually attempt to hash over only its superficial aspects (suppression of democratic liberties, etc.), but some enterprising student may venture into a discussion of its class character. Such questions are now being answered by the theory, unofficially promulgated, but supported by quotations from Browder, that fascism has turned against capitalism and that American and British capitalists are now opposed to fascism as such!

The nature of the Soviet Union is also discussed, but apart from perfunctory references to it as a socialist state, it is merely represented as having some social advantages that the “democracies” have not got as yet, but which they may acquire (it is not breathed how) at some future date. After this “tribute” to the October revolution, more important things about the Soviet Union take precedence: it is discovered that the Soviet Union’s most important contributions to the world have been the policy of collective security and the making possible of a “United Nations” victory.

The more active new member, who shows the ability and the inclination for leadership, is usually given some sort of more advanced course. Here, for the first time, he will encounter what he is told is “Marxism-Leninism,” but is merely the current Browderist-Stalinist line in theoretical clothing. Here he will learn in some detail of the “accomplishments” of “socialism in one country”; of Lenin’s writings on future national wars in Europe (all ten lines of them); here he may get an introduction to Marxist economics, and here he will certainly learn to “understand the correctness” of Stalinist zig-zags during the past eight years (anything before that is too far back for the youth to remember, and hence need not be discussed). Even during this course, the most advanced given in the YCL, little encouragement is given to read the basic works of Marx and Lenin.

What is the result of such an educational system? What sort of cadres does it turn out?

A YCLer who has gone through this mill comes out with three main political orientations: “friendship” for the Soviet Union; a vague desire for socialism at some distant future date, with no idea of how this is to be achieved; and the main orientation – conviction of the necessity for a “United Nations” victory at all costs as “the precondition for all future progress.”

If this orientation can be said to have a class base, it is a petty-bourgeois one. No attempt is made by the Stalinist line to appeal to working-class instincts, and it is a matter of fact that most of this new crop of cadres are petty-bourgeois elements. No appeal is made to the working class as an independent force, and as a corollary there is no mention made in the YCL press or educational discussions of any specific trade union or working-class activity (speeding up production excluded).

Thus we find this typical new YCLer developing in a community branch, following a reactionary political line and completely divorced from working-class pressure in the organized labor movement (there are no union fractions in the YCL). He thinks entirely in terms of winning the war; all other aims, such as socialism, are completely tied up with and predicated upon this. Therefore, no sacrifice, in his mind, is too great if it helps “national unity,” “United Nations unity” and consequently the winning of the war. The Stalinist slogan “Everything to win the war!” has a very literal meaning, and is applied with a vengeance.

This type of League member has been molded by the Stalinist leadership for the present period, and he fills the bill perfectly in all respects but one. The bureaucrats have been able to discover substitutes for many things but they have not yet discovered a substitute for the political and organizational devotion of a proletarian revolutionist. If there is one thing characteristic of these new cadres, it is their undependability. This undependability of the “win-the-war cadres,” together with the previously mentioned apathy of a great many “members” of the League, provide the organizational difficulties with which the League is constantly faced.

This member is the most difficult type to talk to. Unlike the inactives he is well-versed in all the Stalinist half-truths and falsehoods and, unlike the more advanced elements, has no theoretical background to appeal to. It is from this group that come most of the hysterical anti-Trotskyists people, who have read all the Daily Worker slanders and who have no considerations for working-class democracy if it disturbs the war effort. Their whole alphabet from A to Z is “Win the War!” and anybody who disagrees with this is a “Trotskyist-Hitler-agent” etc.

To sum up, this type is a new kind of YCL leader and activist. With an absolute minimum of Marxist knowledge, and schooled in opportunistic politics, he has only the most tenuous connection with radical thought. Though subsequent events may disillusion some of these elements with Stalinism, they will be far away from a revolutionary position.

We have now completed our analysis of the two principal types of new members, who have come in since the Nazi invasion of the USSR and who now constitute the bulk of the YCL. To be completely precise, one should add that there is a small percentage of new members who do manage to get a better political education than the others we have dealt with. An interesting illustration of this took place during the past year in an isolated YCL branch at the University of Missouri. With only the most tenuous connections with the state office at St. Louis and no connection at all with the National Student Office, it was continuing to follow the strict educational and organizational procedure of the Stalin-Hitler pact period. A comparatively large amount of time was spent on organized study of the works of Marx and Lenin, and the requirements for admission were at least an understanding and agreement with the principles of socialism. When the National Student Secretary of the YCL discovered this state of affairs during a visit last winter, she horrifiedly set about putting an end to it. But such branches are isolated exceptions.

There is another group of members, comparatively small, in this stratum of the YCL, who have been in the movement for several years but have never become absorbed into the organization and remain politically inactive or semi-active. They know enough of radical theory and have a good enough memory for the previous Stalinist line to take with a grain of salt the more extreme right analyses of the leadership (Roosevelt as the American guardian angel, etc.) but in the main they have never grasped enough of the socialist ideal to shake them out of their petty-bourgeois apathy sufficiently either to rebel against the opportunistic Stalinist line or, on the other hand, to throw themselves into the YCL actively.

3. The Revolutionary Elements

Finally, and most important, there is the layer of the best and most loyal members. These are the comrades who have read Marx and Lenin, some of them to a considerable extent. Most of these YCLers are also members of the Communist Party. These are the socialist conscious youth who can defend Stalinism with “theoretical” arguments and the inevitable out-of-context quotations.

These members are bound to the Communist Party because to them it represents the only Marxist movement, the only socialist movement, and the only movement that defends the victorious working class revolution in the Soviet Union. It is important to remember that they are not held only by the defense of the Soviet Union, but also by their firm belief that the Communist Party is the only party that can achieve socialism in the United States. These convictions are the foundation-stones of their whole-hearted adherence to the Stalinist movement.

The contradiction of their position is that because of their devotion to socialism represented to them by Stalinism, they are forced to accept a political line that trespasses on every principle of revolutionary socialism. What is the factor that keeps them from recognizing this contradiction and allows them to follow the Stalinist road while remaining fundamentally honest with themselves? To be sure, defense of the Soviet Union and devotion to socialism are the rocks to which they cling when everything else is thrown in doubt. But what is it that makes it possible for them to finally accept the Stalinist line as the real theoretical goods? What is it that above all characterizes these YCLers and distinguishes them from consistent revolutionary Marxists?

It is their failure to think in terms of class forces. To be sure, they are aware of the existence of the bourgeoisie and the general role it plays. They are aware of the social basis for fascism and bourgeois democracy, and know that it is the same. They are substantially aware of what must be done by the working class in order to achieve socialism. But all this in a sense is abstract awareness – it is never consciously applied to the world situation of 1943. In other words, these YCLers do their “theoretical” thinking on one plane and their “practical” thinking on another. This Marxist-conscious League member will read, agree with and absorb for future reference Lenin’s characterization of the present epoch as one of imperialist wars and proletarian revolution and five hours later he will go forth from his room and his “theoretical” study to lecture his branch meeting on the necessity of “national unity” to defeat Hitler.

The crucial thing that makes the acceptance of all this Stalinist tripe possible is the failure of this Young Communist to base his political thinking upon the principle that the working class is the only progressive force in modern capitalist society, that the socialist revolution is the only progressive goal in this society, and that independent working-class action is the only method of achieving this goal. Ingrained in his mind as a principle of “progressive” politics is the idea that the bourgeoisie, or parts of it, are dependable and worth while allies for the working class in the achieving of some progressive measure, be it social security or the defeat of fascism. It is this idea that makes it possible for him to agree with such measures as the support of Roosevelt and Churchill, while accepting the patently false adulation of these “allies” with a grain of salt as necessary for “unity.”

It is possible to enter into theoretical discussion with these YCLers, and this is the most fruitful method. Most of them, despite their necessarily vague idea of Trotskyist as “spies, saboteurs, and fascists,” realize at heart that the rank and file of the Trotskyists must at least be honest, and are therefore usually willing to engage in some sort of discussion. They reason that the prohibition against association with Trotskyists is made to protect the politically inexperienced members against the “insidious line” of the Trotskyist, but that they, the politically advanced, are proof against it.

It is of the utmost importance to impress upon these YCLers that we are for unconditional defense of the Soviet Union and by the only method that will assure its success. But in addition, and most important, it is necessary to engage these Stalinists in discussion upon their basic political line today. Theoretical blows must be dealt at the line of “national liberation war,” at the dissolution of the Comintern, at Browder’s thrusting into the future (a more distant future with every speech) of the struggle for socialism either here or in Europe. The basic theoretical questions of today must be the main line of attack. It is important to remember that many of these YCLers have inner doubts about these questions.

In addition to their acquaintance with Marxism this third group has the advantage of being the most active and self-sacrificing political workers. They are the most dependable elements in the YCL.

Many of this group are now leaving the League, either being drafted into the army, going into Communist Party work or entering the party bureaucracy in the district offices. In the latter case they tend to become completely associated with the Stalinist machine as a pattern of life. As has been pointed out, no similar cadres are being turned out to take their places. It is necessary to realize that in the future the Stalinist youth movement will have a different physiognomy than in the past. The Stalinist youth movement is heading towards the right and into conflict with the basic needsof the working class. This tendency is reflected and will be reflected even more in the class composition, increasingly petty-bourgeois, and the political consciousness, decreasingly radical.

The Socialist Workers Party must salvage some of these Stalinist youth during the coming period – some of those who consider themselves revolutionary Marxists. As we have indicated, they still number at present about 10 per cent of the 20,000 members. One should add, however, that this category of revolutionary-minded youth is so large only if we count the many of them who are in the army. Only when, carried forward by the coming revolutionary wave, we have a mess organization capable of getting a steady stream of propaganda into the hands of the Stalinist rank and file, will we have the possibility, aided by the revolutionary developments themselves, of breaking off large sections of the membership as a whole. This is a task that history has set for the future.

However, in the present period, it is possible and necessary to convert the best and most politically advanced elements in the YCL to Trotskyism. Winning over these youth is a serious task for the revolutionary movement – a task that will lay the ground work for the events ahead.

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