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James Robertson

New Stage for the Youth

(Fall 1957)

From International Socialist Review, Vol.28 No.3, Fall 1957, pp.122-125.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Socialist-minded youth are moving ahead in the regroupment of forces. Can they achieve a durable, united organization?

James Robertson, a well-known youth leader of the Bay Area, has offered this article as a contribution to the discussion of regroupment among the socialist youth. We welcome expression of the views of others who are interested in this important question.

* * * * *

SINCE its inception as an organized force, the radical youth movement in the United States has gone through two major stages of development. First came the wrenching away of the socialist youth from the old Socialist party under the impact of the World War I, the Russian Revolution and the formation of the Communist International. These constituted the basis of the Communist party youth movement in the twenties. Second came a turning away from the Comintern as Stalinism moved to the fore. The Spartacus Youth League, founded by the American followers of Leon Trotsky, was a point of attraction, while larger numbers of youthful militants went to the revivified Young People’s Socialist League. The most active elements in these two organizations merged and affiliated to the Socialist Workers party. But this promising development gave way under the impact of World War II and the factional struggle that broke out in the SWP over the question of defense of the Soviet Union.

The postwar period up to the death of Stalin, the Khrushchev revelations and the East European revolts and uprisings saw little socialist activity and organization among the youth. The socialist youth groups were small and largely ineffectual; Communist party work in the youth field in terms of education and activity was a kind of middle-class liberalism compounded by subservience to the dictates and interests of the Russian Stalinist state machine.

Today the radical youth movement stands at the threshold of a new stage of development, one of great importance and opportunity for the revolutionary socialist movement. It is now possible to create a new pool of potential Marxist leadership among the American youth. What we do in the immediate future can set the tone and pattern for a whole period.

Conditions are favorable for a renascence of a propagandists radical youth movement. The witch-hunt has receded, murmurings are apparent in the economy, developing antagonisms are visible between the rank and file and the hidebound trade-union bureaucracy, the East European class struggles have had an impact as has the latest round in the colonial struggle against imperialism.

Against this background the principal fact is the dissolution of the (Stalinist) Labor Youth League. Only a few years ago this organization still had as many as 5,000 members. Now it has fallen to pieces – a direct consequence not of domestic events but of Khrushchev’s revelations and the massive struggles in the Soviet bloc which showed the workers of East Germany, Poland and Hungary pitted against the Stalinist regimes. Having no independent roots in the American class struggle, the Labor Youth League existed by ideas alone, with a certain amount of bureaucratic glue to hold them together. The enormous discrepancy between the avowed aims of the Labor Youth League and the practice of its principal heroes, such as Stalin, was too great a contradiction to be bridged.

The formation disintegrated and ordered its own dissolution.

This was accompanied by a breakdown of the long-existing hostility of former LYL members toward other radical youth organizations. Among these in turn, as among the organizations of older people, it became generally recognized that a regroupment of forces was in order and that this could be reached only through friendly discussion over programmatic questions, no matter how sharp the differences over particular proposed answers to the common problems faced by the working people. The forum movement started up around the country and various broad and loose clubs appeared, providing a platform for speakers representing various tendencies. The interest in this development has been particularly high among the radical-minded youth.

Within the general flux, of course, some of the older people have refused to recognize that they were faced with new tasks and new opportunities. Among the more notable of these is the Socialist Labor party, an encrusted organization that remains decades behind the times.

Because the turn was not due to a rising class struggle in this country that might have brought tens of thousands of new people into action in a massive way, the issues have primarily revolved around an ideological assessment affecting a relatively thin stream of younger people. Among these, however, the ferment has been profound.

A great shattering of illusions about Stalinism has occurred. In contrast to those in the Communist party and its periphery, who were led to believe that today’s leadership of the Soviet Union represents the socialist ideal, are those who felt they had to reject everything associated with the Soviet Union, even socialism itself. Seeing Russia as a horrible, totalitarian monstrosity, where the workers are turned into dehumanized slaves and brutes and all class-consciousness is eradicated, they felt it better to stick with John Foster Dulles. The feeling is well expressed in George Orwell’s novel 1984 – the hopelessness of everything in face of such phenomena as Stalinism. For many youths in the Social Democratic and liberal movements, this illusion, too, has been shattered. The actions of the workers in East Europe have demonstrated that the working class can move and exert its pressure despite Stalinism. The dual shake-up in thinking has shown that the old order is dead – a new movement is required in the youth field.

The actual process of regroupment, naturally, has not been straightforward. A number of alternatives have been advanced on what to do.

The simplest is “stand-patism.” The hope is to ride out the storm. The attempt to wish away the present is characteristic of those who really have nothing to offer. The Socialist party, for example, having finally achieved re-unification with the Social Democratic Federation, responded to the regroupment process by urging everybody to join them. This is nice of them, but not well calculated to meet the challenge of the big change that has occurred. The SP-SDF leaders recognize that something peculiar called the forum movement has developed, but they are so far removed from reality that they actually believe Khrushchev’s revelations were part of a plot aimed at sucking in the Socialist party.

Those who are under the illusion that the Socialist party represents a hope for the future should make it a practice to read the Socialist Call more attentively, for it reveals what a thoroughly hidebound, ossified and miserable grouping this really is.

The Communist party likewise takes a “stand-pat” position. Of course they are progressively losing their following of youth, but they still hope to ride things out. If they no longer label opposing tendencies as “fascist agents,” they nevertheless regard them as irrelevant. As in the case of the Socialist party, this represents a complete loss of touch with reality. At one time the CP was a formidable barrier to the socialist movement. But that’s not true any longer. The former strength of the Communist party remains today only as an illusion among some of its followers, who begin to sit in little rooms, isolated from the social process.

Another tendency, the one grouped around the Monthly Review, while not numerically significant perhaps, carries considerable ideological weight, especially among those who have retreated from the Communist party zone. This tendency, too, has clearly indicated its lack of interest in community relations or discussion with other tendencies. In reply to an invitation to participate in the forum initiated by A.J. Muste, Paul M. Sweezy, one of the editors of the Monthly Review, declined, suggesting that others should follow his course of abstention.

Such rigidity, having much in common with the sectarian ossification of thought most clearly represented by the Socialist Labor party, was, of course, to be expected among some of the radical currents in abrupt turns of this kind. In other groups underlying instabilities rose to the surface. This was especially true of the one nationally established youth organization outside of the Labor Youth League; that is, the Young Socialist League, which is more or less affiiliated to the Independent Socialist League.

The Young Socialist League had the possibility, perhaps, of becoming the nucleus for a new independent youth movement. But it has undergone an internal crisis. The right wing, tailing after the Shachtmanite leadership of the Independent Socialist League, which proposes to become part of the Socialist party, is preparing to enter the Young People’s Socialist League on any terms whatever; and the left wing, resisting this course, has its attention centered on the problem of bringing together the elements really capable of building a new youth movement.

The possibility of achieving a re-groupment around a broad common denominator of militant socialist activities is very attractive to segments in the youth field of the most diverse political background. For example, in the Bay Area, with which I am most familiar, we in the left wing of the Young Socialist League have met with a most friendly response from many young people who generally regard the National Guardian as their paper. On a nation-wide scale, the forum movement has given impetus to these get-together tendencies. At the present stage, exploratory discussions are going on about political minimums and organizational forms. These are occurring among the left wing of the Young Socialist League, young people in and around the Socialist Workers party, some of the youth supporters of The American Socialist, sympathizers of the National Guardian, former members of the defunct Labor Youth League, and just plain independents and youth first, coming to radical politics.

This is quite a list. If anyone had suggested two years ago that there was a possibility of a united youth organization with such components, it would have been taken as prima facie evidence for certifiable insanity. This in itself shows what an enormous wrenching we’ve gone through in the youth field in this country.

All these young people taken together are an impressive force – at least potentially. The various tendencies are not negotiating as crystallized national formations. They are found in varying proportions in a whole series of clubs and local groups in youth forums and the like across the country. In New York, for instance, the Young Socialist Forum has a good-sized contingent sympathetic to the views of the Socialist Workers party as well as left-wing members of the Young Socialist League. In Philadelphia the proportion of former members of the Labor Youth League is larger. In Chicago the tendencies are spread more evenly. The Minneapolis club has mainly an American Socialist complexion. In Detroit it is Socialist Workers. In the Bay Area several groupings have appeared besides the left-wing caucus of the Young Socialist League, among them the Mark Twain Club which came out of the Labor Youth League. In Los Angeles, Socialist Workers partisans have done much toward getting a united group independent of all parties. These main areas indicate what is happening nationally.

It is important to understand that the desire for unity, the desire to reverse the fragmentation of the radical movement, is not sufficient in and of itself to bring about a healthy unification. The basis for unity requires the fullest and most careful consideration. Here, by way of preliminary, it might be well to indicate a difference in attitude that is important for those coming from the Labor Youth League and those from a background such as the Young Socialist League.

Former LYL members, used to an organization numbering in the thousands that suddenly went to smash, feel that a terrible vacuum has been created in the socialist youth field. Large numbers quit completely after the Khrushchev revelations. Others who did not renounce their socialist views feel dispirited and demoralized. We of the YSL on the contrary saw the self-demolition of the LYL as a progressive development, since it removed a big barrier. True, it involved the loss of a good number of young people from the radical movement; but it opened the possibility of a new beginning since it broke the monopoly of a false program and a false control in the American youth field.

The question of program once again asserted its predominance over mere numbers. After all, of what use is an organization, no matter how large, if its purposes run counter to the interests of socialism? The end of the Stalin cult and the confirmation of the crimes and betrayals charged against Stalin’s rule was a most healthy development. Now we are able to discuss in an atmosphere free of the vilification with which the Labor Youth League customarily responded to issues raised by its opponents.

The elements of a new youth movement that must be considered in their interrelationship are, first, its independence, secondly, its broadness; thirdly, its militancy. These must be combined in such a way as to lead to an effective and democratic movement of young socialists, and at such a tempo as to maximize the opportunities at hand.

To avoid leaving these as just words, it is necessary to specify our meanings. By independence I mean free from the organizational control of specific parties, that is, groupings adhering to fully formulated political programs. It is true that there is a long-term instability in “independence” of the youth, since people grow up, and in growing up they settle on a political program. After debate, experience and participation in political activities, the most independent youth movement will eventually reach an outlook more or less parallel to one or another of t h e various parties.

Right now, however, a little bit of youth “vanguardism” in political matters is a desirable thing. Because of the more rapid break down of old organizational ties in the youth field – a kind of running ahead of the general socialist field – any seeking after adult link-ups would have to be with groups as they were rather than as they will be. The regroup-ment process is reaching maturity more rapidly among the youth than among the adults. Thus there exists a considerable discrepancy in developments in the two areas. Gradually the adult level will pull parallel and that may raise problems, but that is for the future.

Another important consideration in favor of independence is that one of the legacies of Stalinism is an exceptionally suspicious attitude among young people who have been in politics. A great many – and by no means the least worthy – former members of the Labor Youth League want no part whatsoever of subordinating themselves to adult groups. This antagonism toward the older generation in general is a result of the specific experiences of these youth with Stalinist practices.

In addition to this a good many young people who want to participate in a new youth movement look toward definite adult organizations or periodicals. Any enclosing and narrowing down of the youth movement would simply chop them off.

From the considerations regarding independence, I think it follows directly that the new youth movement must seek an extremely broad scope. Maximum diversity within a basic common denominator is, moreover, a really precious asset, in my opinion, because it brings into play a great deal of experience, bodies of knowledge and insight from different tendencies. Speaking from personal experience, the Bay Area YSL has been labelled as a bunch of “hard-boiled Bolsheviks” and also as an “all-inclusive political zoo.” We drew no line against anarchists, social democrats, sectarians, or those with illusions about the Soviet Union, yet we engaged in a good deal of militant action. The lesson we drew from it is the need not merely for tolerance but for genuine interest in the ideas of others, their contributions, and mutual exploration of views, while at the same time placing a lot of emphasis on militant activity without, however, using a disciplinary whip in any fashion or making any kind of attempt at compulsion.

It so happens that about ninety-eight percent of the activity that a youth organization might undertake is in any case of the type an extremely broad range of tendencies can subscribe to. Differences that could appear through participation in working-class struggles are not very great at present.

However, there are certain limitations to broadness. The main one, I think, is the political hostility of groups that are opposed to an independent youth organization. Among these are the Socialist Party – Social Democratic Federation, the Socialist Labor party, the Shachtmanite ISL and so on. Yet even here there will be individual members who might like to participate. Even a member of the Young Democrats might like to see for himself what an organization with socialist aims offers. You don’t treat such seventeen-year-olds, who want to argue for Stevenson, like aged betrayers of the working class. The opportunity should be open for them to develop into Marxists. On the other hand there are groups in this country who proclaim their Marxism to be second to none yet who would refuse to touch an independent socialist youth organization with a ten-foot pole. In practice the question of just how broad “broad” is will be determined by the attitudes of those who wish or don’t wish to participate.

As for militancy, this can be a cloudy word. It should be sufficient, it seems to me, to classify an organization as militant if it seeks to take a genuinely socialist position on issues as they arise, to decide on practical steps and to discuss in comradely fashion the various theoretical ramifications. Aside from what it means in programmatic implications, militancy involves a conscious attempt to break with the study-group habits of withdrawn young people and to undertake actions energetically, with a great deal of commitment.

In conclusion I would like to stress the urgency of youth regroupment. The breaking of the Stalinist grip in the American youth field has opened opportunities not seen for decades. But these opportunities will not remain indefinitely. They can be dissipated, leaving the arena free for backward or even reactionary tendencies. On the other hand, resolute action can signify the early appearance of a new socialist youth movement in America with a great future before it in the coming period of working-class radicalization.

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