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Socialist Appeal, January-February 1936, Volume 2 No. 3, Page 5-6
Transcribed and Marked Up by Damon Maxwell in 2009 for the Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line.

Mistakes At Columbus

By Georg Mann.

NOTE: The Appeal is not necessarily in agreement with the views contained in the signed articles. The editorial board of the Appeal favors the freest discussion of all problems facing the revolutionary movement and consequently we invite contributions representing all points of view. We append this note to comrade Mann’s article because it raises so many interesting and controversial questions with reference to the activities of the Yipsels in the student movement. But the principle enunciated in this note is.

IN ORDER for Marxist theory to serve as more than a screen behind which opportunistic leaders may hide the reactionary character of their actions, it is necessary that Marxism be directly and consistently applied to all the relationships between revolutionists and the organizations in which they participate. This axiom is particularly important at the present time when the Young People’s Socialist League is beginning to emerge from beneath the accumulated debris of reformist years and is taking the first feeble steps along the road that will eventually make it a genuinely revolutionary youth organization. It is absolutely necessary. that we examine all our actions in order that we may discover the exact causes of failure or success; it is especially important that we analyse our conduct in order that we may discover the .source of every opportunistic deviation from a correct Marxist line.

With few exceptions, the conduct of the YPSL at the Columbus convention of the American Student Union displayed an unholy reverence for the tested principles of opportunism. The majority of student Yipsels behaved as though the only concern of the league was to avoid offending anybody – anybody, that is. except that minority which betrayed an unfortunate leaning toward Marxist principles. But the convention itself was not merely an isolated example of opportunism; the history of the Yipsels in the student field is a long sad narrative of confusion. For many years the League refused to amalgamate the Socialist controlled Student LID with the Communist led NSL because Socialists didn’t like Communists and considered them disruptionists The Yipsels had no general policy in regard to the organization of students; Yipsel conduct in the student field was based on three major considerations: organizational opportunity – without any conception of what to do with the organization after it was formed; a strong belief that a Socialist youth movement should concentrate almost entirely on young workers instead of fooling around with petty bourgeois students; and an inherited and instinctive distrust of Communists. But during last summer, certain Yipsel leaders in the SLID, confronted with a large and sincere – albeit confused – movement for student “unity,” laid the plans for the formation of the American Student Union; the YPSL as a whole maintained its former position and still opposed amalgamation. In September, however, the NEC of the YPSL were suddenly faced with a fait accompli, with the fact that Yipsels were openly violating established policy by working for and supporting amalgamation; therefore, on the basis of a mail vote, they reversed the stand of the YPSL. Yipsels were now instructed that they were to support amalgamation because many unaffiliated students were for it. Organizational opportunity – correctly spelled “opportunism” – was cited as the reason for the change in line. At no time, however, did the spectre of Marxism appear in discussions of student policy. It was tacitly, and perhaps a trifle enthusiastically assumed that the YPSL was a Marxist organization and therefore could not deviate.

A desultory educational campaign was conducted in the Challenge and in the YSR. The Challenge articles in particular, (with the conspicuous and honorable exception of an anonymous letter on the ASU in the December issue) were educational only in the Daily Worker sense of the term; the comrades were simply told that the new line was.

When the National Organizational Committee of the YPSL met in the middle of December, only one draft program for the ASU was submitted to it. and this program was correctly rejected because it called for the cooperative commonwealth. After discussion. it was decided that the YPSL must insist on two points in the program, a general and definite orientation of students toward the working class, and sufficient elaboration of the Oxford oath in order to prevent the Communists or liberals from discovering any loop holes which would permit them to support an imperialist war. The carrying out of this plan and complete control over the caucus were entrusted to a steering committee composed of Al Hamilton, Hal Draper, and myself.

At the convention, opportunism manifested itself in three major ways: in the program which the YPSL advocated for the ASU, in the general manner in which the YPSL conducted itself on the floor of both the ASU and the SLID conventions, and in the organization and control of the YPSL caucus. These will be taken up in order.

The program which the YPSL advocated was, with minor changes, adopted by the convention of the ASU; therefore, it is quite easy for the reader to discover how the program agrees with the requirements set up by the NOC. The most obvious omission concerns the relationship between the students and the labor movement. In a program which deals so thoroughly with the immediate economic problems of the students it is a little surprising to discover only the most casual of references toward the working class. Toward the end of the program there is an expression of general support of the working- class and the farmers; but nowhere is there any attempt to explain the economic reasons for student support of working class struggles.

This is probably just as well, considering the economic implication of the section on war which chatters about “the inner oligarchy” which wants war in order to make money and the “plain people” who oppose war because they dislike being killed. Because the section on war in the program was, at its best, completely pacifist, Hal Draper introduced a resolution which contained three specific statements against kinds of war and which was intended to refer to the present situation. The Communists scoffed at the first two sections which declared against support of “defensive” wars and support of “progressive” wars against fascism, as superfluous, but they voted for them. They introduced a substitute for the third section, which opposed support of a war even though the government was allied with a “progressive, non-imperialist nation.” (This last phrase means Soviet Russia). Their substitute, obviously intended to provide them with an out in case of Hearst inspired war with Japan, spoke glowingly of the Soviet Union as a force for peace, and was passed by a vote of approximately 190 to 150. The only complete program on war was introduced by the Spartacus Youth League; Joseph Lash, the Socialist in the chair, ruled that it was out of order. It is interesting to note that in Draper’s resolution the working class is ignored, but by that time, the working class was becoming used to being ignored by the “unity” minded students.

The major concern of the majority of the Yipsel leaders at the convention was to avoid offending the liberals and the Communists, At no time was it indicated that the YPSL thought the program of the ASU was not a complete exposition of revolutionary theory. Only once, at the end of the convention after the Stalinist motion on Soviet Russia’s peace role was passed, did a Yipsel indicate that the League was not in complete accord with the actions of the convention. The delegates may be legitimately surprised when they return to their campuses and discover Yipsels advocating a completely different program for changing society from the one they engineered through the convention. The Yipsels consciously encouraged one of the most dangerous tendencies in the modern radical movement the idealistically inspired bleating for unity on any terms – preferably the wrong ones. The Yipsels, instead of trying to end the political confusion among the liberal students, catered to it and ended up in the stupor of opportunism.

Yipsel caucuses were only held because the delegates insisted upon them. Although the delegates had little education about a program for the ASU, no discussion on program was held at the caucuses. Two members of the steering committee who changed names on the slate at their pleasure, were only compelled to reconsider their actions because of the pressure of the rank and file delegates. At the caucus, the Yipsels were told by the SLID officials that they had decided to remain in office for the ASU When one of the Yipsels objected to the proceedings, the steering committee successfully opposed him for the SLID steering committee with a Stalinist sympathizer whose name was being distributed at the convention signed to the call of the American League Against War and Fascism Youth section Congress.

These are merely the bitter results of confused theory which has its only basis in the desire for bigger and better organizations. It would be profitless to list all the errors into which opportunism in the student field has led the YPSL. There is no room in this article to discuss a correct student program for the League; but after the opportunistic catastrophe at Columbus, it is high time that the YPSL concern itself with the problem of winning students to the revolutionary labor movement instead of contenting itself with hypnotising the liberals into liberal organizations.

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