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Tim Wohlforth

What the Radical Youth Need

(Winter 1958)

From International Socialist Review, Vol. 29 No. 1, Winter 1958, pp. 23–25.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The instructive experience of the Labor Youth League and the Young Socialist League shows who is really for an independent youth movement in the United States

Tim Wohlforth is Managing Editor of the newspaper, the Young Socialist. He was a member of the National Committee of the Young Socialist League until his recent suspension from membership provoked a split in that organization. He was formerly Chairman of the Eugene V. Debs Club at Oberlin College.

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DISCUSSIONS are now going on among radical youth of all persuasions interested in the political and organizational basis for building a new youth movement. Virtually all of these young people seem to agree that the new youth movement must be organizationally independent of all existing adult radical groups. Many young radicals have had experience with youth movements dominated by adult groupings which did not allow the youth to develop along their own path and these experiences have left a bitter taste.

Domination of youth movements has been the rule and not the exception in the history of the socialist movement in all countries. Why has this been so? Can the youth movement that many of us are trying to build today be free from such domination?

The question of the independence of the youth movement is an organizational question. It involves such questions as the relationship of democracy to discipline in the youth movement and the relationship between the youth movement and the adult parties.

The radical movement has been plagued by organizational questions similar to this; and in a number of cases a division on such questions has led to a split. However in every case serious study reveals that the organizational issue has been largely a reflection of an underlying political difference.

This holds true for the youth, too. Let us take a look at the Labor Youth League as an example. The LYL claimed throughout to be “an independent Marxist youth organization” completely free from domination by any political party.

However from the time of the 1948 Communist Party convention, which called for its formation, to last year, when the CP decided to dissolve it, the LYL was little more than a younger shadow of the CP. Never did it take a stand in contradiction to CP policy, and never did it raise real criticisms of the CP’s own mentor, the Stalinist leadership of the Soviet Union. Former members of the LYL have told this writer that they never once had a chance to participate in the formulation of League policy on any important issue. League conventions were more like political rallies and song fests than occasions for the formulation of policy. Internal democracy, while guaranteed on paper, was not present in life. Caucus formations in opposition to the leadership, the key to real party democracy, were not allowed.

The lack of independence and internal democracy had a fatal effect on the development of the League. This can be illustrated by two examples.

Soon after the formation of the LYL in 1949 the CP line on the Progressive Party and independent political action began to change. By 1952, the CP had decided to sink the Progressive Party nationally, including the American Labor party in New York, despite the opposition of its membership and such leading spokesmen as Hallinan, McManus and McAvoy.

In the youth field this policy was reflected in the dissolution of the Young Progressives of America. The LYL, however, remained as the party youth organization though it, too, was to be affected. Under the slogan “For Democratic Youth Unity” the activities of League members came to be diverted from building the League, to functioning in and building a whole host of other organizations from the YWCA and Unitarian Youth to the Young Democrats and Students for Democratic Action.

Thus the League members spent most of their time building organizations which supported the State Department’s war policies, compromises with the Southern racists to preserve the “unity” of the Democracy party, and the witch-hunt against them and the rest of the radical movement.

All this was done, not to build the LYL and bring the message of socialism to America’s youth, but to advance the class-collaborationist CP policy that goes under the name of “People’s Anti-Monopoly Coalition.” The net result was to further the CP’s line to the detriment of the League and thus to contribute to the tremendous decline in membership and influence that the League suffered. (Admittedly the main cause of the decline of the LYL was the “objective” situation – prosperity and the witch-hunt atmosphere of the cold war. However, this does not minimize the importance of the “subjective” factors which affected the degree of the decline.) The decline finally culminated a year ago in the dissolution of the League itself, despite protests from many of its members.

For another example of the terrible price the LYL had to pay for its lack of independence, let us look at its attitude toward the Soviet Union. For years the League claimed to be for socialism “which is no longer a dream but which has been realized in the Socialist Soviet Union.” It identified socialism with the policies of the leadership of the Communist party in the USSR and apologized for Stalin’s betrayals of the working class. Had any LYL member voiced a tenth of the criticisms of Stalin that Khrushchev made at the Twentieth Congress he would have been immediately expelled.

This substitution of Stalinist propaganda for an independent Marxist analysis of the Soviet Union and the complete reliance on the whims and needs of the Soviet bureaucracy, left the LYL membership wide open to demoralization when the Khrushchev revelations were published. The price for the lack of political independence was a tremendous drop in membership, a factor that contributed to the final collapse of the League.

It became clear that if the LYL were not dissolved by the CP leadership, many of its members would proceed to re-examine the questions revolving around the Soviet Union and develop an independent course that would have been a real threat to the CP leadership. The indicated road was a study of the “proscribed” books of Marxists who long ago analyzed the degeneration of the Soviet Union and the reactionary role played by the Soviet bureaucracy. Above all it pointed to a study of the works of Trotsky, who analyzed the negative features of the Soviet Union while still defending its progressive planned economy, and who, while attacking Stalinism, refused to desert Leninism.

It is clear that the organizational domination of the LYL by the CP was imposed by political necessity. The Communist Party itself has never developed its political positions in relationship to the needs of the American working class. For instance, its turn from the United Anti-Fascist Front to the isolationism of the Stalin-Hitler pact and then back to the support of the Roosevelt government in the imperialist war against Germany was determined by the needs of the Soviet bureaucracy and its foreign policy and not by the objective needs of the American working class.

More recently its scuttling of the Progressive Party and promulgation of the class-collaborationist “People’s Anti-Monopoly Coalition” is simply an extension on the domestic American scene of the Soviet Union’s “peaceful coexistence” line. Furthermore, the CP up to the day of the Twentieth Party Congress defended every action of Stalin. Today nobody in the CP defends Stalin against Khrushchev’s attacks.

Since the CP does not develop its own political positions on an independent basis it certainly cannot tolerate the youth doing so. Discussion and independent criticism is the death knell to any organization which depends, not on the needs of the working class as expressed through its membership, but on some force external to it (in this case the Soviet bureaucracy) and whose interests are in part, at least, in opposition to the working class.

However, the CP is not the only political tendency on the American scene which cannot tolerate an independent youth movement. In other words, it is not the only tendency which depends, not on the needs of the working class as expressed through its membership, but on some force external to it and whose interests are in part, at least, in opposition to the working class. The other major political tendency in this category is the Social Democracy.

The Social Democracy, once the international party of revolutionary Marxism, has fallen into disrepute since its sell out of the working class at the time of World War I. Since that time Marxists have pointed out the treacherous character of the Social Democracy, flowing from its attempt to straddle the class struggle – to avoid a head-on conflict between capital and labor. The Social Democracy in the capitalist countries represents within the socialist movement the interests of the political and trade-union bureaucracy. This bureaucracy has adapted itself to capitalism and as a result enjoys certain privileges denied the rest of the working class. In order to protect these interests, which are in part separate from and antagonistic to those of the working class, this bureaucracy opposes the development of genuine workers’ democracy in the trade unions. The Social Democratic parties also attempt to prevent a political expression of the interests of the working class, as distinct from those of the trade-union bureaucracy, from developing within their own organizations.

For these reasons the Social Democracy cannot tolerate the development of independent working-class politics within the youth movement. The history of the Social Democratic youth movement – take America’s Young People’s Socialist League as an example – has been a history of the conflict between the genuine revolutionary aspirations of the youth and bureaucratic suppression by the Social Democratic leadership.

As a recent example of this let us look at a small youth group, the Young Socialist League. This group is closely related to the Independent Socialist League in a manner somewhat similar to the relationship between the LYL and CP. The ISL has been moving, over the past number of years, away from a revolutionary-socialist position in the direction of the Social Democracy. This general trend has manifested itself recently in a bid for unity between the ISL and the “official” Social Democracy, the Socialist Party-Social Democratic Federation.

The SP-SDF is the representative within the American socialist movement of the interests of a section of the labor bureaucracy. Its present extreme weakness and smallness of size is largely due to the fact that the labor bureaucracy does not need a “socialist” cover and functions in the main directly through a capitalist machine – the Democratic party. The SP-SDF’s politics reflect this, among other things, in its general support to the cold-war policies of the State Department.

The ISL knows that the SP-SDF leadership will not give up its dependence on the State Department and unite with the ISL on the basis of independent working-class politics. It is also aware of the fact that if a left wing developed in the SP-SDF, which fundamentally challenged these politics, it would be expelled, as has happened in the past. But the ISL has fled so far from its revolutionary past that it is willing to subordinate itself politically and organizationally to the State Department leadership of the SP-SDF.

In order to bring along with it its most valuable “property,” the young people in the YSL, it was necessary for the ISL to destroy the political and organizational independence of the YSL. A left wing developed in the YSL in opposition to this general trend. It proposed as an alternative to entrance into the swamp of the SP-SDF, unity with all socialist youth in an independent movement with a genuinely socialist program.

This left wing was slandered and ostracized by the ISL-dominated right wing. The right-wingers even rewrote the Constitution of the YSL to make discipline more stringent. This fall, the left wing was definitively forced out of the organization, leaving the YSL completely under the domination of the ISL in preparation for entry into the SP-SDF. Thus the loss of political independence from alien class forces by the ISL led ultimately to the denial of organizational independence to the youth in the YSL.

The thesis we started with – sharp organizational issues reflect basic political differences – seems to be substantiated in the cases of the CP-LYL and the ISL-YSL. In addition, we can make another generalization: lack of organizational independence of the youth is a reflection of the political dependence of the adult party on alien class forces. Or, to put it positively, only political parties or groups who base themselves solely on the working class and whose politics reflect the real interests of the working class can tolerate the independence of the youth. Lenin, as early as 1915, made a clear unqualified statement in defense of the independence of the youth – a statement which his “supporters” in the CP and ISL might do well to study:

“Adults who pretend to lead and teach, but who mislead the proletariat are one thing: against such people a ruthless struggle must be waged. Youth organizations, which openly declare that they are still learning, that their main task is to train Party workers for Socialist Parties, are quite another thing. Such people must be assisted in every way. We must be patient with their faults and strive to correct them gradually, mainly by persuasion, and not by righting them. Frequently, the middle aged and the aged do not know how to approach the youth in the proper way; for, necessarily, the youth must come to socialism in a different way, by other paths, in other forms, under other circumstances than their fathers. Incidentally, this is why we must be decidedly in favour of the organisational independence of the Youth League, not only because the opportunists fear this independence, but because of the very nature of the case; for unless they have complete independence, the youth will be unable either to train good Socialists from their midst, or prepare themselves to lead socialism forward.” [1] (Emphasis in original.)

History has shown that neither the Stalinist movement nor the Social Democratic movement can tolerate the real independence of the youth. Only those who rely upon political argument and persuasion instead of bureaucratic fiat to convince the youth can tolerate an independent thinking youth movement. And only those who are free of both the American State Department and the Soviet bureaucracy can safely rely upon political argument. That is why it has been the revolutionary socialists from Lenin’s day on who have championed the independence of the youth.

Today new youth groups are springing up throughout the country. A new youth paper, the Young Socialist, supported by many of the members of these groups, has likewise come into existence and is finding its way into the hands of radical-minded youth throughout the country. It is no accident that revolutionary socialists are the prime initiators of this development and that both the Stalinists and Social Democrats look upon it with hostility.

The ground is being laid to build a new radical youth movement that can educate and inspire the new generation of America’s youth. This youth movement must develop on an independent basis. As Lenin recognized, “necessarily the youth must come to socialism in a different way, by other paths, in other forms, under other circumstances than their fathers.” The American youth will take nothing for granted and will insist upon inspecting all ideas, programs and doctrines. It is not enough to tell the American youth that “this is the position we have always held” or that “Lenin said it this way.”

However the serious American youth, in contrast to the intellectual dilettante, will study the program and history of all the radical groups. He will read critically, Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg. He will study the history of the Russian Revolution, of the Chinese Revolution, of the Third International, as well as the history of the American revolutions, and of the American working-class movement.

Only by a critical study of the ideas and happenings of the past can a young person develop a really independent Marxist understanding of the world he lives in and of the tasks that lie ahead. To ignore the past is only to insure one’s dependence on the will-o’-the-wisp ideas of the moment – ideas which, in a conservative period like today in the United States, necessarily reflect the interests of classes alien to the working class.

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1. Collected Works, Vol. XIX. See pp. 329–332. International Publishers.

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