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International Socialism, Spring 1963


Gavin Kennedy

[The Young Socialists]


From International Socialism, No.12, Spring 1962, pp.22-24.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Gavin Kennedy joined the League of Youth in 1955 in West Hendon and was soon co-publisher of Keep Left. He was in the Australian Labour Party from 1956-8. He joined Hendon North Youth Section in 1958 and has been secretary and Chairman of the Branch, Secretary North East Middlesex Area Federation 1961-2. delegate to 1st and 2nd Annual Conference YS for Hendon North. During this time was EC member for Hendon North Constituency Labour Party (1959-62) (i.e. Secretary Hendon YS 1959-61, Chairman 1961-2).

Dear Editor,

The article by Will Fancy and John Phillips on the The Young Socialists was as provocative as it was dishonest. Such a theme is, of course, very difficult to remain unpartisan about especially as both the authors have been personally involved in much of what they wrote about. But, without casting shadows over the motives of the authors, the pro-Young Guard bias of the article was often obscured by much material of a relatively factual nature. To the unsuspecting reader a picture of the YS was presented which could seem tenable in particular as the old myths about Keep Left were given prominence. In the period covered by the article from 1958 to 1962 I way personally involved in the leadership of Keep Left, being its secretary from 1959 until June 1962. I have at present no connection with Keep Left or active politics in the Young Socialists; therefore I feel I have no axe to grind. I have no idea what Keep Left thinks of your views. I would though like to correct some of the dishonest opinions and interpretations presented in your journal as to the role that Keep Left and Young Guard played in Labour’s youth movement. There was a basic difference between Keep Left and Young Guard which had little or nothing to do with the so called ‘hard and inflexible’ nature of one and the ‘democratic’ (we belong-you don’t) nature of the other. The charge of ‘political dishonesty, double book-keeping (!) and cynicism’ laid against Keep Left’s door is cheap when later on in the article Fancy and Phillips criticise the fear of open political honesty within the editorial policies of Young Guard. To avoid political embarrassment, and maintain the unity of its ranks (read: ‘sales’ and feel sick) issues of a controversial nature – the Soviet Tests, for instance, were ‘studiously avoided’! If this editorial policy (which on their own admission, Fancy and Phillips do not lay at Keep Left’s door) is not cynical, politically dishonest and steeped in monetary gain (‘double book-keeping’?) then what is it? The real difference between Keep Left and Young Guard was political, and never was confined to ‘arid differences’ but was wholly fundamental. There was as much connection between the activities of Young Guard and its ‘state capitalist analysis as the practical activities and politics of Keep Left were connected.

Understanding the nature of the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union is part of and related to the understanding of the bureaucracy in the workers movements in this country. Thus Keep Left and Young Guard clashed ideologically and organizationally at every turn in the YS. This could not be avoided, for unlike the principled giants of the NEB of Young Guard, we dared to express our independence of their politics. What could have been avoided were tactless mistakes on occasions, but then Keep Left never claimed the monopoly of experience.

The confusion about the Labour bureaucracy and how to fight it was particularly marked in Young Guard ranks. They swung from one side to another. Up to and following the 1st Annual Conference of the YS, the major criticism of Keep Left was that it was heading for a collision with Transport House blindly, that we were ‘adventurers’ etc. Our fight against Transport House brought dismay into the ranks of the Rally and Rebel groups. Fancy and Phillips write that Young Guard was ‘conceived’ out of ‘frustration’ at standing on the sidelines while the right-wing and Keep Left fought it out at Beaver Hall. Whether Fancy or Phillips accepted it or not, the fact remains that Keep Left in that fight represented the leftwing, not by choice but because the rightwing picked the fight with Keep Left, not in ‘early 1961’, but in November 1960 by instructing Hendon North and Wembley North YS Branches to cease producing an unofficial paper. This was the issue, nothing else.

What an admission from Fancy and Phillips, is in that paragraph! At the very moment when the rightwing was hammering into Keep Left and the rights of the leftwing in general, when the Editor of New Advance was breaking with the bureaucracy in Transport House, at this time, the ‘frustrated" turn their backs and go off into the night to “conceive” ... Young Guard. At this time Roger Protz had no connections with Keep Left and on the very night when the Young Guard members were in their little circle of hate, the very moment when this comrade needed the full support, visibly and vocally, of the whole of the leftwing youth, only Keep Left and unattached leftwing delegates to the conference bothered to show up at a meeting addressed by him. Some conception of priorities! But this is not all. If anything was learnt at the Beaver Hall Conference it was that the leftwing pays a heavy price for hysteria and shouting and rushing the platform. Keep Left walked into the traps of the rightwing. We were criticised by the leading lights of Rally and Rebel at the time. We learnt this way that the rightwing can only be defeated by patient work in the YS, by political victories etc. It seems though that seven issues of Young Guard had not overcome the political ‘frustration’ of its readers for in 1962 at the May Day rallies, ‘mainly Young Guard’ supporters, charged the microphones of the rightwing and won a splendid victory in Glasgow – the closing down of the most ‘militant’ Federation! Fancy and Phillips claim this was ‘spontaneous’ and provoked by Brown’s and Gaitskell’s speeches. Surely the experience of Beaver Hall taught them something, or do they learn from only the imaginary mistakes of Keep Left?

One of these imaginary pitfalls of Keep Left is the so-called ‘workers bomb’. A neater and more misleading cleverism could not have been invented, even by its originator that great Indian patriot, Dick Clements of Tribune. Serious argument is prevented by the use of such a substitute for argument. Satirical expressions are very powerful and funny in their place. But after the laughter has died down (and even I have a sense of humor) the differences are still there. It is logical that if you conceive of the Soviet Union as an imperialist country then you must oppose the Red Army having a rusty bayonet never mind a rocket or- bomb. Fancy and Phillips can afford to be smart because they admit that part of the ‘democracy of Young Guard is that everybody agrees not to disagree, so nothing controversial is permitted and the Soviet Union’s weapons policy is ‘studiously avoided’. Fancy and Phillips are entitled to complain at this but they are not entitled to impute ideas to Keep Left which it never held. Where did Keep Left justify the use of Soviet bombs to defend Russia! Where did Keep Left give the bureaucracy the ‘right’ to do so? We said (how many times?) that the bureaucracy is incapable of a lasting defence of the Soviet Union and the establishment of international socialism. But the fact remains that they control Soviet Russia now and are protecting their own interests as well as the October Revolution. If the USA-bombed Moscow etc, they would retaliate. This is the nuclear chasm we all face. The possibility of mutual destruction puts a delaying action on the nuclear fuse, meanwhile. Only socialism can guarantee the peace and this is dependent upon whether the working class outside Russia overthrows capitalism, which means defeating our own bureaucracy in the labour movement etc. The bureaucracy usurped power from the workers in Russia and maintains itself on their backs – this has a political answer not an emotional one. To demand of the bureaucracy that they give up the H-bomb as a gesture to the working class is a misunderstanding of their position. To close ones eyes to the bureaucracy, by calling it a class or charging the microphones is self delusion.

Another one of the ‘pitfalls’ concerns the ‘overnight change to socials and ‘mass work’. This is portrayed as a panic change in ‘the line’, with the alleged ‘imminent threat of fascism’. Again untruths feed the myths. The greatest failing of Labour’s youth movement has been their insular nature. The vast mass of youth bypasses the Labour Party. Until the breakthrough takes place the youth movement will only be a career to some and a discussion club to others. The rightwing will inevitably win by isolating the leftwing youth and depriving them of resources. Our crime? Attempting to pull the YS towards the youth. It failed, not because it was incorrect in principle, but because we could not win the whole of the YS and the labour movement to help solve the dilemma of Labour’s youth. I remember pointing out, in vain, at a Young Guard meeting that such a turn to youth needed the co-operation of the whole YS and was not Keep Left’s own personal crusade. I say ‘in vain’ because the speaker (John Palmer) kept pointing out that ‘Keep Lefters’ had failed to do it in his area and how other Branches were better. There is no doubt that there is a relationship between the size of the LoY in 1939, 1935, and the YS in 1962 and the events that took place in those years. ‘Mass work’ was not a panic measure (it was discussed in the Editorial Board in 1959) nor a manoeuvre to avoid proscription. Your correspondent dramatizes the truth out of proportion.

Fancy and Phillips really go to town on how democratic Young Guard is and, by inference, how undemocratic Keep Left was. Is the comparison fair? Keep Left, like Young Guard, had an elected editorial board, meeting monthly. It had an AGM which considered the accounts and policy. Keep Left files are a tribute to the really democratic nature of the paper. Individual criticisms I had found their way into the pages of the paper, just as many ideas of mine were rejected or modified. No one person dominated the paper, no reader’s view was ever ignored. If Young Guard is as democratic it is commendable. I know that at last year’s AGM of Young Guard, things were so democratic that the Editor and Treasurer did not get nominated for election and had to be co-opted later, a great testimonial for them!

The distortions on the ‘workers bomb’, ‘socials’ and ‘democracy’ as regards Keep Left are typical of the myths that Keep Left suffered under, and Young Guard did a lot to manufacture. Phillips and company would like to write history to read as if Young Guard was the haven of genuine lefts from the frightful Keep Left with ‘monstrous’ policies and methods. Sweeping the net of confusion far and wide from marxists to Christian socialists (what no Trotskyists!) they unite everybody in an anti-Keep Left camp. The cost? The YS turns in on itself ready for a campaign for autonomy which is about as relevant as national status in 1958. The efforts of Rally at this time incidentally are portrayed as a ‘response to stirrings towards national status’ in the Youth Sections. The only stirrings existed in Rally minds as many of the sections attending the St Albans and Luton conferences were opposed to national status campaigns under the conditions of the time (my own Section, Hendon North, included). The birth of Rebel likewise has another side. Keep Left attended the meeting in Hackney that formed the YSAB group, in fact money was collected there to make the banner for Aldermaston which WE carried, the Rebel groups not willing to co-operate even with Keep Left on such an issue. But these and many more factual departures in the article would take too long to debate.

The Young Socialists today face a future of organizational battles outside the main stream of working class youth. The dole queues are getting longer. While autonomy and democratic rights in the YS have importance, they have no relevance if the YS cannot make any impact upon the youth in the dole queues. I have my doubts if a fully autonomous YS with the widest democracy is the answer. Unless the political answers are forthcoming all that such an organizational framework will give is a new set of rules. I am not here decrying the significance of a democratic YS – Keep Left fought for this as well as Young Guard – but I am saying that such an organization must be in the context of a mass movement. It is on this last issue, that I would have my greatest differences with Young Guard (though they originate from the political differences) for we never just intended to pass resolutions against Gaitskell and Khrushchev, or shout at them or sit down in their front rooms, but build a youth movement that might settle the battle for all time.

Gavin Kennedy


Reply by John Phillips

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